The Heart Chronicles #7: Walking the Line

{Warning: you are about to travel through a twilight place I have been. If a believer in only the five senses or simply a born scoffer, turn back before it is too late!}

I am the sort of person who wants to know what is around the next corner, even if it is poorly illuminated and leads to destinations unknown. Curiosity has driven me forward all my life, come what may. So when heart disease encroached on my journey,  I was willing to have a lesson clarified once more: we walk a thin line between living and not living in this world.

Most of the time we aren’t so certain of that. Sometimes we even believe we are so firmly ensconced in this life that nothing could cause a serious or even fatal detour. There have been a few peculiar side trips for me so the life and death issue was not a new one. But it has been both troublesome and surprising. 

This is where I freely admit I have believed in God/Divine Love all my life, and have felt that this vehicle of flesh and bones is carrying us around for a purpose, at times unclear. I have thought often since my youth that we are eventually going back from whence we came and that, in the meantime, we are charged with living with mercy and fortitude, passion and hope– lofty stuff. But cultivating good humor greatly helps, as well as taking myself far less seriously as the years pass.  These are guiding forces in my life, and make travelling through this world go much better. 

So back to that cantankerous nuisance, heart disease. I went in for the second stent implant eighteen months after the first one due to a sudden return of symptoms. All went well in the OR as far as I knew–I was under anesthesia’s effects. Besides, I was busy with other experiences while others were engaged in theirs.

I recall I watched from the far side of a deep and rolling river. The opposite banks were packed with throngs of people who were waving, their mouths moving, faces bright enough to blind. They all spoke or sang–I couldn’t quite tell which it was from the distance–but I knew they  were tryng to communicate something to me, so I moved closer to the edge of voluminous water.  Although the river was mighty, it was the current seemed gentle, and I had the feeling that I could lean forward enough to just fall in and thus be carried over somehow.  No boats, no rafts awaited me so I stood an observed. The air was opalescent, but it felt like something more, an energized swath of translucence between myself and the others. I raised my hand in response at last. I knew where I was. It felt like home.

I now saw my parents step forward. Both of them were joyous–until my mother’s eyes caught mine across the distance. Her face came into clearer focus and I was filled with happiness.

A frown creased her smooth, radiant skin as she spoke clearly. “What are you doing here now?”

I took a small step, then paused. It wasn’t what I thought she would say. The river, the people, the silvery light faded.

“Cynthia! Don’t slip away! Sit up now!”

I struggled a second, then opened my eyes. My husband was jiggling me and I pulled away, closing my eyes again, seeking the faces of my parents and so many others who seemed familiar.  But it was too late.  I looked around the white and grey hospital room.

“I thought I was losing you there,” Marc said.

I pulled away and opened my eyes, irritated, wishing to see again who was on that riverbank.

“I’m okay. I was just watching…I was going to go…but mom didn’t think it was time.”

Marc took my hand firmly,  as though by holding it he could keep me in the room, in that body, in this most human life. And maybe he did, despite my deep longing to cross the border into that other place. I kept my eyes open to this world and sat up straight and got ready to heal again. Visons intermeshed with the drive of practicality had been the norm for my life.

But I know, you might be thinking: the river, the masses singing/speaking, her parents welcoming her? It must seem a bit much to some or sound too Sunday-school-lesson. But there it was. And for me, it was one more experience given for remembrance of the endless breadth of Spirit, and how we exist far beyond our great, heroically beating hearts, mended and or not.

There are small moments that remind me of the thin line. It might be the way the light flushes the sky with a tender beauty; the dense thundering of my heartbeat when I hear perfect music;  chance eye contact with a woman on the street who is weeping or a child who reaches with a smile in passing. It may be a sudden intuition, or the certainty of love in the midst of the often careless and mad century we live in. But I am taken out of myself. I forget my whims and desires. And then I think: I might have just stopped breathing in the snap of two fingers and not have had any more of this. 

 As I see it, I was given a bridge that day and I step upon it carefully, never forgetting. It is a thin line between this world and the next but for now, I have this life and it has me. There will be a time for more later.

The Importance of Unexpected Visitors

 

Harper latched the white gate and backed away from his front yard and house. True, things looked a little shabby around the edges. He hadn’t been able to paint it for a few years and the cost of labor seemed steep to him now that he didn’t work anymore. It was a large, sturdy structure, a  house that had watched the comings and goings of a family of four. Now it housed Harper and occasionally his college-aged grandson, Tom, who was lately very busy. 

 But Isabel had been on him again, full of complaints. She felt it her civic duty to let him know what she thought about the state of things. She and her teen-aged son had been toiling in their front yard the past Saturday morning. Harper sat on his porch, coffee mug with the chipped edge in one hand,  paperback book in the other.

“Are you thinking of painting this year?” she called, looking up at him through sunglasses,  her elegant fingers holding her straw hat down.

“No,” he said, turning the page, “not yet.”

“You should reconsider. The  neighborhood is starting to be concerned. To wonder.”

“That’s what neighborhoods do sometimes. Find things to worry about. ” He sipped the sweet strong coffee. “Probably miss the old days when I boozed it up some and caused a little tongue clucking.”

“Really, Harper Yobst. You can be contrary. I just worry that you’ll let it go and then what? You always loved this house.”

She left him alone a couple of days. But soon there was a deep-furrowed frown tossed at him over the fence, a lecture now and then. Last time she’d come by with a flyer about the annual May home tour of historic houses.

“Have you heard about the houses picked? About that time again.”

“I hear about it every year.” Harper had just restrung his guitar. He sat on the porch swing and it swayed gently as he tuned it up. “I see these huge, attractive houses every day, Bel. I bought one, after all, in 1982. Back when I had another life with a lovely, far less treacherous wife and two sassy kids.”

“Still.” She ignored the last tasteless, snide comment. “It raises money for good causes. And Mart and Carol’s house is on the tour this year.” She pointed down the street five houses, as if Harper didn’t recall the couple he and his Mona had played cards with every couple of months.

“Ah, yes” he said and started to play, picking out chords easily, strumming a bit louder as Isabel continued to talk.

“You could at least spruce up the flower beds–you can’t see those perky tulips for all those wild bushes!” She pushed her curly hair back under her hat for emphasis and gave him a weak smile. He knew she liked his playing.

Today he had awakened with an excellent idea or two. He was going to do a few things to cheer the old place up a bit. Not that Bel had anything to do with it. She made it her mission to annoy him, and when she wasn’t doing that, she was bringing him food despite the fact that he was a better cook. She had ramped up all this busybody work after Mona had left him for a professor in Italy. Harper was the anomaly on the block: retired, single,  gimpy due to a ski accident two years ago, and without significant purpose or cares. In fact, he had thought of selling the house for awhile but Bel’s nagging and the neighborhood council had given him motivation to stay. It gave him a goal until he could find another  one.

Today was Phase One, just in time for the tour.

Harper was gone all afternoon and it was nearly dinner time when he pulled in the driveway. He opened the garage door and spent several minutes unloading and arranging things in the garage. Then Harper knelt over a large wooden crate and smiled down at his purchases. He rolled up his blue plaid shirtsleeves and got to work.

The next couple of days Harper was nowhere to be seen. Isabel peered over her fence a few times when Dustin and her husband, Jim, had told her they had heard him outside in the early mornings, rustling around, hammering even. And there had been some sort of bird sounds, unlike the usual ones around there.  

Finally Isabel stopped by and rang his doorbell. When Harper finally answered, his mouth was half-full of onion bagel.

“I just wondered what you’re up to out in the back,”Isabel said. “I saw you bring in some bags of dirt and chicken wire, even lumber Dustin said. You must be working on the yard. Or something.”

“Mmph,” Harper managed to say and nodded his head, then swallowed. “Just in time for the tour. Maybe someone will be interested in my humble spot.”

Isabel’s eyebrows shot up and she tilted her head at him. Maybe he was going a bit soft in the head, but at least he was taking an interest in his property again. With the tour coming up, everyone was making special efforts.

Which so soon arrived, a clear and beautiful day. The sun was toasty on all the bare arms and legs, the sandaled feet just out of hiding. It was unexpected, the heat this time of year, and the flowers basked in it as well, their glorious colors and designs on the sweeping lawns inviting passersby to dawdle. The whole effect was intoxicating after so long a rainy winter.

“What’s this?” A woman with a couple of male companions pointed at a hand-made sign: THIS WAY TO MUSIC AND FOWL.  They laughed but followed the red arrow pointing down the pathway that wound around the side of the house.

“It doesn’t look like much,” she noted. “Needs painting.  Must have been pretty once.” As they rounded the corner they could hear someone playing a guitar, soothing sounds that seemed to cool the breeze and carry the fragrance of lilacs. They crept into the back yard.

Harper was sitting in a gazebo which had been painted a soft peach color.  Before him were a half dozen folding and plastic chairs. To his left was a child’s plastic pool, within which were two white Pekin ducks with deep orange bills. They paddled at their leisure and quacked congenially as the visitors sat down.

“Do they bite?” one asked.

“No, not one of us, ” he smiled. And he began to play a tune from long ago, a song that he and Mona used to share, she with her autoharp and clear, sweet voice, he with the twelve string Guild guitar. It was about good times and how they come and go, about inviting them in before the chance is gone. Taking a risk and finding something good. It played as well now as it had years ago. His baritone didn’t crack or even flag once. He’d been practicing for awhile, just in case. The ducks’ voices were back-up vocalists here and there.

Out front, more people saw the little sign and followed the path back to the man with the guitar, the ducks and the peach gazebo. They listened and petted the Pekin ducks, sipped iced tea he’d set on a small table with glasses. They settled under the shade of the blossoming cherry and oak trees. By the time Isabel got there, the yard held a small crowd, and Harper was in his glory, wailing on that guitar and singing at the top of his lungs. The ducks let themselves be admired, retreating decorously, then returning.

When Harper’s music stopped, his neighbor came up and stared hard at him.

 “Ducks? Quacking, dirty ducks?”

“They’re pretty clean as long as I help them out, and not very noisy. I’m building a proper house and runway, all fenced in–Phase Two. And they’re quite historical. They came over from China to Long Island in 1873. Attractive, aren’t they? They’ll fit right in our neighborhood. It’s like having a couple of foreign dignitaries. Look how they walk around with their heads high. Unexpected guests, Bel–we all need them.”

Isabel shook her head, took a deep breath, let it out in a slow hiss. She knew when it was time to quit. “Nice music,” she said. “You should play more often so we can all hear you.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “I’m thinking of opening my yard up on Saturday nights this summer if you care to stop by. Harper and Ducks are in business.”

        

The Heart Chronicles #6: Becoming Hospitable

I have not always been at home in this construct of bone and sinew, and there have been times I have even angrily questioned whether it might be extraneous for the pursuit of some of my dreams. Of course, reason tells me this is foolish but pain and discomfort can sometimes win the argument. The truth is, though, if I were to lose any of my five senses, I could continue on, but the brain is clearly crucial to processing information, to the evolution of this one thought. It is the complex command center for all autonomic responses that tether me to this habitation within which I live. So I can’t do without all these parts despite my complaints. 

Still,  it has not always been a very hospitable place to reside. I am sure it is the same for others despite my feeling of uniqueness at times. Illness and injury, traumatic experiences, random deprivation of biological needs, loss of love or comfort, the stress of making a life amidst pressures real and imagined: we suffer during our lifetimes and our bodies pay. And most of us recover, bit by bit.  But there are some of us who early on develop, then practice, behaviors that gradually malign the well-being we have. And we don’t know what we are in for until it is too late.

I can recall the first time I smoked. I was walking along a residential street with a neighbor who was a few years older than I was. She was looking intently at the gutter and stopped, bent down and picked up a half a cigarette butt. She straightened it out.  I was fascinated, then appalled when she lit a match to the stubby end and inhaled. I wondered what drove her to do such a strange thing. My parents never smoked (or drank) and I could think of no one else I personally knew who did so. But she puffed a few more times, then offered the glowing, smelly cigarette to me. I might have walked away or laughed it off. But there was something in how she looked–as though she knew something I didn’t, something dangerous but worth it. She was pretty, she was smart, and she was something else: tougher than me. I shrugged and put it to my lips, breathed in just enough to cause a paroxysm of coughing. I fought the desire to fall onto the pavement in a dead faint. I was fourteen. I stopped visiting my neighbor–I concluded she might be a little too old (or tough) for me to be hanging around with and I wasn’t up to it.

I was sixteen when I smoked again, thanks to B. We were in his car along with two other couples, on our way to a party after a football game. I watched the smoke curl up from his lips, then re-enter his flared nostrils. B. put the narrow burning column to my lips and I inhaled gently, then coughed. It wasn’t so bad as I recalled.  He handed me a package of Kools and said I could keep them, as he was now going to smoke Camels, filterless. I put them in my coat pocket and felt the terrible thrill of having contraband in my possession. The next week I met my best friend and we bought a cup of bitter coffee in the dingy back booth of the Circle Cafe. We each lit up a Kool. It was surprisingly minty and took my breath away. I felt witty and wild with that cigarette dangling from my fingers, between my lips. My parents would be shocked but I ignored the anxiety that sprang up in my conscience. My heart raced, and I talked faster. I finished the whole thing. We lit another. And so it began. I became a dedicated smoker within a year, despite being a figure skater, a swimmer with pretty good swan dives, a singer with aspirations and a devotee of the great outdoors. It was 1966 and I was ignited with the desire to be free of the mundane and bourgeois. I wanted to be a writer. Didn’t all writers smoke, at least? Maybe I would have to live a secret life.

So time passed and what came is not this story. But around age 40 I felt I had gotten too thin, too tired from raising a big family and working full-time but was still dependent on daily coffee and smokes. I was burning the candle at both ends, just as many women I knew. I decided to quit smoking. After three days I called my mother. “I am going to have a nervous breakdown if I don’t smoke,” I said.

“Have the breakdown but don’t smoke,” she said, laughing.

Not finding this funny, I smoked again. But I weight trained and became very strong, gained more stamina and energy with the muscle mass to prove it. Alcohol was deleted after it took more from me than it gave. Before long middle age was carrying me  forward on a wave of confidence and improved health. Or so I believed. 

By 1997, my heart had developed the habit of racing whenever I walked up a couple of flights of stairs. The doctor said it was all in my mind; I was well enough “except for menopause and the garden-variety anxiety that women often get at that time”. I felt humilated by his disbelief but was placed on a low dose of atenolol to slow and steady my heart rate. I was still smoking as although the doctor had advised I quit, it hadn’t seemed crucial. The medicine helped a bit but as the years passed I knew he was wrong. Something was haywire, yet nicotine and caffeine remained staples in my life, as familiar as bread and chocolate, music and books. They were my selfish indulgences.

In February, 2001 I’d had enough. I quit smoking cold turkey. I experienced withdrawal symptoms that kept me awake and sweaty, made me angry and tearful. I called my mother, who was ill, and told her I was going to have a nervous breakdown again giving up cigarettes. She repeated what she had said in 1991 but without the laugh. Three months later she died at age 92, and before she did, she asked me to promise I’d never smoke again.

That September, I had my “heart affair” in the woods, and was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. I had no significant risk factors for having heart disease at age fifty-one.  I ate healthily overall and was not overweight; I was physically active and mentally engaged in life. But there were four angiograms and two stent implants over the next eighteen months. There was mortality pure and simple staring me in the face, and not for the first first or last times.

The cigarettes that snared me with their illusion of brazen allure…were they to blame? My cardiologist, Dr. P. never told me this. But only I really knew how I have lived in this body, the ways I had neglected or mistreated it. Guilt trailed me as I nearly lived in cardiac rehab exercise rooms. In time it diminished, then was gone. But what we do to ourselves marks the terrain of our bodies and beings, then patiently awaits our attention. Taking those Kools was only one of several misguided decisions I made  but wisdom comes at a price, I have heard.

I saw my youngest daughter, Alexandra,  today. She excitedly told me she has been nicotine-free for a year now and she feels good. She’s the age I was when I gave birth to her.

“I’m proud of myself. In fact, I think it’s great I did this!” Then she turned to me. “I can’t believe you smoked as long as you did. I can barely remember it. I’m so happy you quit. Good for us.”

The best I can do now is make living amends to this miraculous vehicle that carries me around. I am making it as hospitable a place as I can, a body in which to dwell with respect and thanksgiving.  It’s trial and error. I’ve learned a lot about being friendlier toward myself and feel more welcome in this body than I have in years. It all works out better and is more enjoyable if we can get comfortable within this patchwork cloak of human life, become our own intimate allies. Welcome back, I told myself as I got healthier each day; welcome home for the duration.

Delilah Takes a Break

It was that time of morning when the light holds back, not quite bold enough to sweep away all remnants of night but tantalizing just the same.  Delilah sat up in the narrow bed against the wall and leaned on the window sill. The birds were gossiping; she could tell by the way they volleyed tuneful chatter across the lawn. With a sigh, she let her eyes linger on the newly greened willow.

She bolted out of bed. She had a couple of hours before she left for work at Hollywood Discount. Such a dreary place but it was a job and at this point in life she was lucky to have it, as her boss reminded her weekly. She splashed her face with cold water until it pinked up. The scent of coffee drifted up the stairs and brought a smile to her lined face. She turned on the shower.

After she dressed, Delilah sat at the round table by the kitchen bay window with the daily paper in one hand, a mug in the other. Percival rubbed against her legs, silvery tail whipping the air with enthusiasm, his voice set on guttural purr. At fourteen he showed no signs of losing interest in the early mornings.

“I would love nothing more than to stay home and catch up with you, Perci, but I aim to get that overtime. Your breakfast is in the mud room, as always.”  Delilah wetted her fingertip and, turning the pages, scanned the news. She paused at the obituaries and ran her eyes down each column, then rose to get her toast and jam. Then she sank into her chair again as it registered. Jackson’s name–Jax to her–was on that page.

“Oh, but I never thought…not yet…”

But there he was: Jackson Malloy III. Former Air Force pilot turned VP in the medical supply business. Retired six months previous. Beloved father of three and grandfather of four. A woodworker of some local renown. Volunteer at the library and St. Stephens Children’s Hospital. Deceased 4/1/11 after a brief illness. She knew what it was: exhaustion, years of it. But they would call it something else.

Percival protested from the mud room but Delilah sat with chin propped in her hands. It was two months ago when he had come in to the discount, looking for a cowboy shirt and marbles for his grandson as well as a hula hoop for his granddaughter. They’d exchanged easy words like always when they ran into each other. Just the way they did when they were teenagers, only now with fewer words but more said.

“You look tired out,” she had told him. “Thought you were living the leisurely life  now.”

“Yes, imagine that. Not working anymore but still too tired.”

“All those years of rat racing caught up with you, Jax” she said and patted his hand, which rested on the counter with a twenty in it.

He’d smiled. His hazel eyes warmed with flecks of gold. “We haven’t made enough time to just enjoy ourselves, have we?”

“Never too late,” Delilah said, and put his merchandise in the bag, then handed him the hula hoop.

“You know how to use this, as I recall,” he said, chuckling.

“I did and still do, I imagine.” She’d felt her face flame, she didn’t know why; it was decades ago when she had shown off her hula hoop tricks. He’d admitted that day was the start of something good. It went on ’til graduation from high school, then died of the neglect that time and distance creates.

Jax handed her the hula hoop and gestured for her to prove her skills, which she did for a couple minutes until the thing clattered to the floor, hips swaying furiously, feet planted apart between a row of linens and one of glassware. He’d clapped; they’d had a good laugh over it. She tried to catch her breath and coughed a bit.

 “That was impressive, but you’re off a little, Del. You’d better take a break from all this,” he said, and shook her arm a little, his hand warm on her flesh. “Life can wear us out before you know it. And then it takes us.”

She’d felt a whole body chill but Jax had smiled gently, whistling as he left.

Perci leapt to her lap, but Delilah ignored him. She thought of the discount store, the long aisles of stuff that looked tarnished and sad to her when she opened the store each morning. She thought of her old comptroller job that took far more than it gave. And she let herself think of her daughter in New York, climbing fast and furious to the top of the heap where she could feel like someone important. And she thought of Jax whistling some happy  tune as he’d left her standing among flimsy travel games, canned food specials, dollar cards and bargain books.

Delilah didn’t think twice before she called in to the store. She rushed through the back door and got in the car, Percival jumping in beside her despite her protestation.  Fifteen minutes later she strolled into the corner park where the old big leaf maple tree stood among the swaths of marsh marigolds. The creek burbled  behind her. The stone bench was still there. She sat while Percival chased squirrels, then leaned over to inspect the tree more closely. She thought she saw something in the hollow but couldn’t be sure. Kneeling down, she reached a hand into the shadows and felt around, shoving aside moldering leaves and sticks, then withdrew it, an object clutched tightly.

“It’s still here,” she whispered as she turned the little statue over in her hands. It was a gnome-like figure, a round-bodied old lady with once-white hair and a big smile. It was worn and filthy, her face obscured by all the seasons that had come and gone over fifty years. She thought back to the day when Jax and she had found it in the park and put it in the tree hollow.

“This is you when you’re old,” he’d said, then patted its head before placing it into the hollow of the tree. “A wise old lady we’ll visit when we’re ancient, too.” And then he’d surprised her with a kiss, so brief that it might not have happened except for the tingling and promise it left them.

Delilah sat among the yellow blooms so long that Percival came over and rubbed his head against her feet. She dampened her shirt tail with creek water and polished the figure the best she could. The lady gnome looked good when placed just so in the tree opening; someone else might happen upon her now and wonder. Delilah let loose a few tears, then eased into the spring sunshine, face warmed by the veil of light.  When all was said and done, it was still a fine morning. She knew Jax would agree.

The Heart Chronicles #5: Music to Fuel the Heart

The  transformative power of music is an old story; it has been with us from the beginning, even before we made our mark on this earth, or so I believe. It has the capacity to expand or distill our experiences as well as provoke us to think, feel, respond.  The years following my heart event in the woods–which I sometimes think of as “my heart affair”, a communal experience with Mother Nature, God, and my mortality–music became a light that illuminated the passages to more health and deeper well-being. 

Classical music had been a major focus in my life, perhaps an actual life force; it raised me as surely as my well-intentioned parents did. That was just the beginning. I cast an ever-widening net and was introduced to folk and bluegrass, jazz and blues, Motown and world music, with a little pop thrown in. It isn’t surprising, then, that music would be a trustworthy companion as I sought wholeness and health. I had three years of stepping out of the job market, so I often set up camp with the radio and a large collection of CDs. The orderly elegance of classical music was more than a balm to mind and spirit; it raised philosophical questions about human history, the ability to triumph over adversity and the nature of genius. But mainly, concertos made me happy; opera roused me; elegies swept over me like a diaphanous dream. Jazz ran a very close second and I couldn’t get enough of Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Eliane Elias, Karryn Allyson, Kurt Elling, Marian McPartland, Diane Reeves…

But what reached me most came from my Irish heritage, Celtic music, and a second and related form, flamenco. I had always loved this music, but after the matter of the heart affair, it loved me back harder.

How to describe what happened when those sounds erupted and careened out of the old Magnaplanar speakers in the living room? “Swoon” might be an apt word, but I was too busy waiting in the middle of the floor, feeling the rhythm in my feet and legs,  sensing the movement from one measure to the next as it travelled up my torso and into my spine where skin tingled with energy. By the time it reached my brain, in mere seconds, I was ignited by all that mattered: life.

I started to dance, arms raised with hands shaping the air or just loose and quiet at my sides, feet soft, then loud, tapping and then sweeping across the floor.  I could feel my heart gather its strength from the complicated beats that wove themselves around and within me. It was talking to me with a bright sound, making itself known by the beauty of its pumping, keeping me in sync with the music, and vice versa. The voices from the stereo entwined with my own, the musicians called out to me and my heart answered. It answered as though its own being, given over to flights of fancy and sidesteps of glee, weeping tears that stayed pure in the blood and releasing  joy that made pain lustrous in   hollows of loss.  It was a heart that understood the music and the music understood it in return. There was something deeply respectful about the exchange even as it felt a little dangerous: my heart rate increased and sometimes protested as sweat sprang at my chest and forehead–but it kept on pounding.

It was duende, the spark of life, melancholy and ecstasy that issued from the guitars and vibrant voices, the complex clapping of hands and relentless dancing feet. It, too, was the ancient magic of Gaelic words falling over me like a veil, the mystery of life and death that played upon the uillean pipes and whistles, the beating of the bodhran as must have been done ’round a fire burning into the night long ago. I could hear my ancestors singing. I could feel the thrumming of their feet on earth. I stepped forward and raised my hands once more.

So it was that music once more came to my rescue, informed and disciplined me. It gifted me with solace and happiness. It made me bold when I felt like retreating. Notes and beats that stirred the air provided me release when there were not words enough. The sound of voices travelling across cultures and time found me; I felt right at home as I forged a passage to a new life, feet firm on the ground.