February is American Heart Month and Go Red for Women. Heart Disease is the number 1 killer of women. We don’t always recognize the symptoms. Many factors increase the risk of heart disease, not just cholesterol or having weight issues. I have heart disease and got it young; I was thin, exercised, ate okay, did not have high cholesterol. Below is the first post of a group of essays called “The Heart Chronicles” that I wrote for my blog starting 2011 about my experience of being ill, getting the right help, the work of ongoing recovery and my gratitude for so much well being. If you even suspect you may have a heart problem, do not delay: seek help, be of good courage and win the battle for greater health.
I am a born walker. I love the way my arms and legs swing rhythmically and how my breathing deepens, the close up views of place and people from sidewalks or forested trails. My appreciation of walking likely started when I was a child. I rode my bike often but I walked ten blocks to school and back both alone and with friends. I took leisurely walks around the neighborhood to see friends or just to seek folks on front porches or working in their yards–I wanted to see what was going on. I spent hours in nearby Birch Woods, jumping over roots and navigating leggy plants, around birches, maples, elms, poplars, oaks, along the creek. Sometimes I fancied myself a spy and kept tabs on the crusty old Benfers (and their strawberries and tomatoes and such flowers!) in their sprawling and gorgeous garden in the plot of land by our house, or shadowing Stark Nursery’s customers poking around rows of bushes and trees– where later I ran about, a cowgirl on a wild horse as sunset spread vividly above.
I also recall my mother walking with frightful efficiency and pace, two heavy bags of groceries in her arms, my short steps scurrying to keep up with hers. Freedom was unfettered movement of all kinds–the hallmark of children and those who love to be on the go. But when I became a mother, my children actually nagged me to slow down. Then one of those years I realized they were power walking past me, well-trained.
Now I walk daily unless constrained by intolerable weather or bed-bound by illness. I hike in woods and on numerous trails around the Pacific Northwest, as nature nourishes me. I walk during the day in the city and at night after ten to eleven hour days at my counselling job, and my spouse often joins me. We update each other on day’s events, enjoy beautiful old homes adorned with graceful gardens in our neighborhood. But mostly I walk not to be sociable or to rid myself of stress but because my body loves to move–and my life depends on it.
Almost eleven (note: the heart event was in 2001; this was written in 2012) years ago my husband and I were hiking in the Columbia River Gorge area. We had taken a well-used trail with steep ascending and descending trails that took us deeper into emerald-green of an early September day. I felt sweaty, and a bit breathless but thought little of it. I’d experienced shortness of breath before–and even since I’d quit smoking 9 months prior. I pushed myself harder, not one to shirk at a challenge. I could hear our destination waterfall in the distance. I would rest then. As we climbed up railroad ties embedded in a hill, my legs began to feel rubbery and to weaken, my chest compressed and breath came hard. I was having trouble getting oxygen in me and it hurt each time I tried. My spouse had moved ahead of me. People passed by with barely a glance as I began to crumple. I willed my legs to carry me up the last bit. Then it landed with a vengeance: the proverbial elephant on my chest. It weighed so much and created such deep aching I could not cry out. I somehow–about on my knees– pulled myself over the top step to where my husband stood. Then fell forward onto the viewing deck as Bridal Veil Fall roared in my ears, then was muted by the physical crisis.
It was a hallucinogenic dream sort of trip through primeval forest as I stumbled, then was half-carried by Marc to the car. Breathing was labored. An odd electric sensation shot through my chest from time to time. I felt nauseous, so exhausted it was as if I might sleep an eternity. But once in the car we did not head to the hospital. I thought only: I’m tired, need to sleep in my own bed, it can wait a night. We went home and I said to Marc that I would make an appointment to get my lungs checked. Was it the start of COPD– or cancer? Damned cigarettes. I knew viscerally I was in serious trouble. Tomorrow, I thought, and fell into a restless, haunted sleep.
When I awakened weary and anxious the next morning I held in my mind one clear thought: Find a heart doctor. Not a lung doctor. It was as though I had been sent a blaring message: my heart was warning me. Rather than look online at my insurance providers list, I oddly–perhaps testament to how bad things were–went through the phone book’s yellow pages and asked each cardiologist’s office closest to my home if they took our insurance. I felt urgency that superseded all. After a half-dozen calls, I found an office that accepted the insurance and had a physician who would see me without a referral. Dr. P. was a new doctor in the large cardiology practice. After I described all my symptoms to a nurse, I was given a slot first thing the next morning but was informed I should call 911 if previous symptoms returned.
I shivered with fear, then calm enveloped me. I had unprecedented faith in forthcoming medical help. This, despite the two doctors I’d sought over the previous year having told me I had “anxiety due to menopause, take a benzodiazapine and relax.” I left disgusted, and without a prescription. I knew there was more to it, but what? I carried on with my life, trying to ignoring the too fast/missed beats, weird pains and general uneasiness–maybe it was just stress symptoms…until a hike in the Coast Mountains, August 2011, where I couldn’t get back up the steep trail without breathlessness with racing heart. Still, I waited another month–the doctors knew better, right?– until that momentous hike in the Columbia Gorge forest. It is amazing how denial can befuddle us.
I could list the tests, share the discussions we had that day but what really happened was that Dr. P. listened. He heard me–my symptoms (which included a worsening rapid heart rate with increasingly less physical exertion, feeling breathless, uncomfortable in my chest–perhaps, yes, as if anxious at times), asked me probing questions– and took immediate action. He believed I’d had a heart attack but it would be hard to discern at that point. I was fifty-one years old and had no risk factors other than having smoked for thirty years until the last seven months. He didn’t believe it was the smoking, though it was perhaps a contributor. Perhaps stress or a genetic link. But I was too healthy, overall, in good shape, and young for such an event. He seemed nearly as shocked as I did but knew my heart was ill.
Dr. P. informed me he was newer to this work but had done over three hundred angiograms–the procedure most used to determine if and how badly an artery is closed or clogged. An attending cardiologist and he would do all they could to help me not only stay alive but become healthier for the long-term. Did I trust him? Was the procedure going to reveal what was needed to help me? I asked myself as I went home to share the news with Marc. As I awaited his arrival, I stared out our big picture window and knew that I did. I was also caught in a strange state, knowing I could have been dead or might yet be, but also felt vibrantly alive, if a bit out of body as well. I also knew I was ready for whatever came next. I thought it all good enough.
On September 17, 2001 I was provided a way back to health with the first stent implant. The tiny device propped open an artery that had narrowed and was more than 90% closed. I was, he said, lucky to be alive. And it wasn’t cholesterol but inflammation that was the culprit. I had been diagnosed with coronary artery disease. It was not the end of it. I would have four angiograms over the next two years and another stent implant as well as changes in heart medications. I returned home each time with wild arrhythmias that sometimes still want to bully me. Tachycardia became an intimate foe, from zero to one hundred and forty until we found the right medication )I was allergic to many).. I learned that if it held at one hundred and twenty I could bear it but if it went on and on, I might still call 911. But medications finally worked better. I went to cardiac rehab. I became brave enough to walk on my own again. Ultimately, with time and exercise and support systems, my heart became much stronger and it beat far more safely so I could inhabit a life worth living.
And so, though always an active person, I began to walk more, first ten minutes and then twenty minutes, in a few weeks forty-five, then finally an hour or two, six days a week, sometimes seven. I had taken time off from work and might have become engaged in swimming or bicycling; I flirted with the idea of flamenco. or something else exotic. But it was simple walking that drew me out of the painful sense of loss and into the world; walking that gave me a little thrill of anticipation; greater encouragement each day as I felt my heart flutter, jump, pause and startle. Walking reunited me with a life of kaleidoscopic wonders. Everything tasted, smelled, looked and felt better. My heart pumped hard, oxygen surged through me so that my mind clarified; my spirit felt more courageous, and lighter.
Oddly, my emotional heart felt more open to everyone and all I care about. I had been a tough woman for many years so that I could survive an assortment of trials, get past loves that had soured. I discovered the path to healing a heart is more challenging but richer than I had imagined. Not a day has passed that I don’t find a reason to laugh for the sheer pleasure of it: my heart became profoundly capable of more living. My emotions were loosened so I felt fully human, closer to who and what I knew as a young child.
And each time Dr. P. tells me: “You’re a star patient. You’ve beaten the odds so far. Your hard work pays off every day.”
I tell him: “You listened to me and saved my life.”
That day I walked my fingers to the yellow pages? They took me to a person who is a fine and committed cardiologist, one who has always cheered me on my journey. Maybe it was a guardian angel who left me the urgent directive that early morning. But I still walk every day out of respect for him, for myself, for this irreplaceable treasure called life. I discovered the power of a mended heart. I intend to use it well.
GO RED FOR WOMEN:
G: GET YOUR NUMBERS
Ask your doctor to check your blood pressure and cholesterol.
O: OWN YOUR LIFESTYLE
Stop smoking, lose weight, exercise, and eat healthy.
It’s up to you. No one can do it for you.
R: REALIZE YOUR RISK
We think it won’t happen to us, but heart disease kills one of three women.
E: EDUCATE YOUR FAMILY
Make healthy food choices for you and your family.
Teach your kids the importance of staying active.
D: DON’T BE SILENT
Tell every woman you know that heart disease is our No. 1 killer.
(Be forewarned: this is real life and not attractive. )
The slate-grey window yawned at me, a near-cavernous thing, a gaping void just beyond which I leaned and teetered, pressed against the cold pane, eyes half-closed. It could have been night or day, either a measure of my sight, my mind, or my disposition. It was 3 a.m., it was 3 p.m., either way it was about to be my undoing, a weak surrender to another gasp of the binding air, a squelched human inhalation/exhalation.
Well, you may ask, how can the very air have binding properties unless filled with smoke or other noxious chemical release of choking minute particulate? But for the time, it felt as if it was, a hazard of living day to day. It was the ponderous curtain of depression, and a deep seeding of unworthiness and powerlessness, and the plaintive sorrow that accompanies it. And it attached itself to me like a second skin that slowly engulfed not only my body but the shrinking core of me. Until a kind of terrible breathlessness came…despite walking, talking, doing as habit bids. Usually. Until an likely imminent failure of purportedly reliable systems.
I have never written for a public readership much of the hardest realities of my life in first person, as nonfiction. The details, even a few that resonate and stick to me like powerful sap. I hesitate. I wonder what can be gained for myself, for anyone. I only know a strong desire is suddenly to, decades later, speak of some things in the way it wants to fall onto the page. Call it a shedding, call it a truth telling, call it a writers impulse toconfess, even self indulgent–that worst of writing which I tend to think serious, difficult soul-baring writing too often is. Nonetheless, I keep writing. And the black letters leap onto the white expanse like spooked deer running for their lives, or, perhaps, running to better grazing grounds….
“Don’t let the past steal your present or future”: this is taped upon my mirror on a scrap of paper. I meant it back whenever and I still do. Practice it like a mantra, like a psalm.Use it like a life preserver.
I have not felt those above difficult sensations nor daily carried such burdens for multiple decades–way back when I was in my late teens, when I finally almost gave up the fight with late-diagnosed PTSD due to damage of unspoken (and ignored by all adults) childhood sexual abuse. Emotional abuse, the kind that lingers as a low drone, unheard perhaps by others but unmistakable. Those times and those stories are not even fit to print, I always think, so terrible was my habitation within them. It went from bad to worse: those many storied, high-ceilinged Gothic buildings with dark, too cold or hot, near-empty common spaces and such tiny sleep cells, one of which I sheltered within at night; the lack of control over any waking or half-sleeping moment, and many patients roaming and muttering or locked and tethered and mostly drugged out of time and thought, and ultimately alone and deeply lost. There were those committed for drunk driving, for drug use. This was not an enlightened place or time. There were no addiction treatment centers, no dual diagnosis help back then.
The absurdity of it, trying to heal within a decrepit mental institution and a system that was a maze of a nightmare, antiquated, more ruinous than imagined at first glance–which was bad enough. The place where I did survive 4 months. But it was so toxic and poorly run that it was closed not long after I exited via power of a court order. True, I had experienced what was called an acute toxic psychosis, brought on by amphetamine and barbiturates with psychedelics tossed in, then subsequent withdrawals and the old PTSD flourishing in the midst of it all. There was more that happened in my young life than anyone ever knew. And I wasn’t soon talking. And a badly run psychiatric hospital would not make me talk, either. I determined to stay alive, endure, day by day, but being there with those issues was like being scalded then nothing but burn and ash, bereft. The body sickened, wounded by being dunked/scrubbed/yanked/detained, magnification of emotional robberies past and present and a team of medical “judges” lined up as I was sat on a small chair on a platform, interrogated, given sentence, told that doing my tasks and trying hard was not enough, I had more time: the internment as I called it felt like being left in far greater peril, with no way out. No one incarcerated thought differently behind high barred windows… unless they no longer could think, at all. One could see why not and crying about it helped nothing.
Then, too late for so many, there it was: that it’s doors and windows had finally to be shuttered was, of course, no surprise to me. That it took that long, too long, stunned.
That sprawling compound where so many had lived for years, not just weeks or months, remained vacant for a long time, perhaps I imagined to be razed to the ground as it needed to have been, or sold for its considerable, pretty acreage. Then, perhaps fifteen years ago, I came across a glossy article about how a resurrection had taken place: that dark castle of horrors had been reconfigured, renovated, reborn as a resort of sorts, a high-end shopping and fancy hotel with spa kind of place. Imagine my astonishment and dismay. To think of people taking pleasure there. It will never be anything other than it was, to me, and I can imagine there roam ghosts of its long and ignominious past. I wish it had been made into a garden or a wooded haven, a nature preserve for birds to fly free, all creatures roaming at will. Space to be, nothing a barrier to what comes easily and with no harm intended.
But I made it through that experience and the grueling times (including before and the aftermath) as I could only hope that others did. I sometimes think of them, recall their faces, the longing and fear. Since I exited through those gates and found greater freedom I learned there were good ways in which to get better, rebuild my life. It required time, stubborn intention and work to leave behind the oddly magnetic pull to give up. To find sturdy “earth legs” again to keep me steadier. But I found despair did not have to commandeer me; there were coping methods that did not involve drugs, either illicit or prescribed. I may have been fortunate, yes, to read the right books, find a few wise therapists, avail myself of friends and other support people along the way. And I had a faith that I did not altogether abandon, a belief that I would prevail with God’s constancy and compassionate guidance one way or another.
That kind of torment, the black well of it, has not revisited me as happened there in that time and place, the late 1960s. And still the impact has not quite left me, though I might think otherwise.
It wasn’t just the provoking illness and addiction, the self loathing and hopelessness that accompanied it. It was those streaked dirty pea green walls and corridors, the cups and needles full of soul-negating “medicines”, heavy thud of steel doors as they slammed tightly shut and even locked, screams and garbled monologues of agonies named and unnamed, the grave mental states so many inmates inhabited–if one can say they inhabited anything but their bones and flesh. Even I felt taking leave of one’s senses was the best prospect for relief, at times. Then there were less mentally or physically impaired individuals who might possibly have thrived if they had lived more safely, been loved well…they so touched my soul. We found each other’s eyes often and spoke less, there was little will for that. But those things I had to do to get by each day, the labors forced upon me since my mind clarified and I was capable before too long. The required mental gymnastics and learned obedience I was put through by people doing what they were paid to do…the rough hands that informed me there was no escaping anything: these can and do haunt. One does not precisely forget. It gets into sinew and cell and those who’ve known the experience keep it hidden in a series of scars, even as the damage is repaired.
One presses on and looks for anything better. For light amid the depths. One scrounges for courage where there is none. Where every breath feels useless and yet one must breathe. This is how human beings are outfitted if we get to be fortunate enough: we are made to persevere beyond all reasonable cause or any evidence supporting hope. We will ourselves to keep on.
How I prayed when crumpled in dank and dirty corners that if God would only release me from that desert of spirit and mind and body, that Gothic nightmare, I would spend my life in service to help others. I wanted to care more for any sort of real life, but was beaten down and beyond caring…and one prays harder when great need presses in, and also strikes bargains. I was entirely committed to such a bargain (and one day would make good on it).
There it is. Words testifying. But I haven’t thought of this story within the greater context of my life nor of that distant past in so long. Perhaps not since my late twenties. So why now?
I have good cause, maybe. The recall may bring me closer to truths needed so I can rally and come back to joy and peace, not mere facsimiles, not only a hope of both. I already know what hell is; I also know what a sort of heaven is that can manifest here and now.
How does one write of shifting shadows and powerful undertow of depression when I still barely understand it in my own life–despite treating others in some way or another for decades as an addictions and mental health counselor? I have easily empathized with others; I have believed their fight valiant and purposeful. I’ve rallied resources, cheered them on, held the line against more loss and for greater renewal. But, really, perhaps I had lost something vital–a conscious knowledge of all that had been placed on a shelf: Something Once Experienced and Done. Like being beaten or or raped, overdosing or having knives thrown at you or being shot but surviving. I have such stories, too, death and life. So it makes sense to me that it was put behind me and I have simply gone on. This is what survivors learn to do, even as we work out the peace we must have.
Not that I haven’t been miserable other times over the decades for a couple hours, for days here and there–quite low, a darker shade of “blue”–even a greater kind of sad for this or that reason, and also wracked with grief for months after losses, but still living in this world better than expected. We cannot escape these repeats the longer we live; it is only human, as it goes. It’s tested me. I’ve felt becalmed, “emotionally inert” for brief times. PTSD affects things a long while and when the triggers arise even briefly I do know what to do. And yes there are the burdens carried about by the wrong decisions made, aching and worn out. But then they are let go.
So—really depressed? More than here and there\ then done with that? I have had no patience for it. I shake my head, say, No, that was back then–this is now. I am so grateful I have not been there again, not like that. Get down? Get back up, it is simple.
But today I tell you: I have over the last few months glimpsed that misshapen, relentless old beast and found it a daunting thing once more. Not as before, no–I am sober and clean of substances. I am not the same age or of the same time, not that same young, mute and bleeding person. I have had years made sweet and sweeter with happy times to encourage, fortify and heal me. I have learned a ton of efficacious coping methods and use them. And I have time on my side, and it teaches and strengthens me each year. At almost 70, I am stronger and better prepared for meeting “life on life’s terms” and more resilient than ever.
But am I? I am re-evaluating a few factors every day and am not so sure sometimes. IT is not the same, it is not even every day I feel run over by the old self abnegation, but it is a fearsome thing, nonetheless.
And the truth is, I don’t sink too low for no reason at all. It is not chemical as far as I can tell, certainly not for eons, if it ever was– not in the classic sense of clinical depression etiology. I tend to feel internally solid, more or less balanced mood-wise and I do know who I am, know what I need and what to do. Sure, I feel and express several emotions in a day, this is h ow I was built for the world my heart a sieve for feelings and impressions. No one ever accused me of not being transparent, either. But my internal barometer reads acceptably warm or cool, or I change it to what works better for the environment.
No, it is always a particular circumstance which I find more demanding and then finally near-impossible to effectively problem solve around, to improve; or a number of those times with weightier cumulative effect. So I have examined many changes in my life and found that they have taken me down without my full knowledge. Little by little. From one sort of confusion or loss or hurt to another. This low time has been 3 or so years in the making. And I have had to look it in the face; I do not like not turning on a light bulb to see what is coming at me, and what I need to work out.
I will not bore you with endless details but will note some major events. (Those who read my posts weekly, please forgive any repetition.).
Six people I loved have died one after the other in a fairly short time, some in a very difficult manner. I’ve had significant health crises and interventions–cardiovascular issues, serious dental problems (dental matters effect heart health, too, FYI), flares of gastrointestinal illness and issues related to inadequate treatment of a previous female health (mis)diagnosis. I had four random injuries due to hiking terrain/missteps as well as a slip and fall; though no broken bones, they suspended my necessary and loved outdoor activities far more than expected. Years of chronic neck pain from an assault at 40 that can steal endurance. and equanimity–I cannot take opioids, nor even ibuprofen (the latter interferes with my heart health). It can get a bit complicated.
My spouse developed a couple of serious and chronic health problems–surprising, scary. Then there were other life crises/financial worries/emotional issues for our children and others at various times, things that have kept me awake at night. And my only remaining sister–an executive director type, a doer and shaker, and one of two siblings left of four–has weirdly developed dementia, perhaps due to concussion from accidents…. but it doesn’t matter how, it just IS. No other members of my birth family now are here excepting this sister. A brother is in Virginia or travelling the world. (Of course, there are three adult children here plus s few grand kids –for that I am grateful beyond measure.)
One dear friend is slowly preparing to move to Arizona in a year; I already see her much less due to our area move. Another has had a major mental health impasse far worse than my current debacle and another (though younger) who is my dearest friend may be dying even as I write this– her medical diagnoses take greater toll week by week.
Where have so many I have loved gone? Of course this is a not even a sensible question. But it is asked. I count them as they fall and still cannot believe it at times. But we age or get ill, and there you have it.
Earlier in 2019, we moved after 25 years in the same abode to an area quite unlike the old one; I still cannot recall my way around all these crisscrossing, winding roads. One of our daughters had twins (after high risk pregnancy) last spring, and then came unexpected postpartum depression/anxiety with many ripple effects. It was overwhelming for me, too, at first. But she rallied with great perseverance, excellent helps. The readjustments remain ongoing though she returned soon to a good if demanding job. Her spouse has not worked outside home, taking on the household duties and daily child tending for eight months, as well. Money is terribly tight. I have helped out 2 times a week or more for the last nine months.
It has been a past year of unforeseen demands as life just presents us, yes. Communications glitches, ongoing stress with tiredness, expectations not met as imagined. We have all learned things about each other that have been surprising and at times difficult. Not to say soul bruising, now and then, requiring more courage, flexibility, ingenuity, patience, compassion–not all of which operate as well as others or often not all at once for us. We each have had our work cut out for us. But the twins are so worth every single bit of labor and devotion. Their magnificence–who cannot embrace and adore new beings given to our care? We so love them. Still, I think it needs to be said that being grandparents and parents and in-laws all at one time is not so easy-breezy as some would have you think, nor an endless happy celebration day in, day out. There are needs coming at the family all the time, and important. But our delight in those two small girl persons is unending and we care for family so much.
I had a major car accident Thanksgiving Day, not so bad, I made it out okay, overall. But it seemed a tipping point. (I’ve had only one other crash, in 1974; it left me unconscious/leaving body, “jaws of life” employed, significant recovery time, etc.) This was a couple months after my husband also had had an accident. My car was totaled, it was a lengthy process with insurance and finally abating. More expenses, injury to address. It took me a month to stop feeling anxious on busy streets, to stop feeling oddly fragile, and it jarred me emotionally–more than I thought it should. It seemed too much at moments, though it was so small an actual thing in the end. It helped hasten a faster descent; I berated myself for my error of judgment, of being in the wrong place, the wrong time. And the loss of money–a “new” used car, higher insurance rates, etc. when it was needed for more important things.
I have to admit that I have spent more time weeping than in decades. I cry over truly sad stories and real human suffering, but I’m not a sniffler over sad songs, fussy people, flat tire in a downpour, one-eyed dogs, bad hair day, etc.–and not a full-on crier even when life hurts. But I have become one the past couple of months. Not every day, but far too often for my comfort. There have been words: I have heard that I am a person with several flaws. I have never pretended otherwise; there have been shocks. More words, regrets and bafflement.
There has been grief. The grief is what moves me to lay on yielding pillow and moan, press my forehead against a tree on my walk and let tears run. For what? For my losses, for the earth’s losses, even for your losses. It can feel like one and the same, all of us paddling or swimming best we can but too many of us sinking, even drowning. I intend to–I must– at the very least float until I swim well once more. What else can done do? I am far too old to quit and start over. I get up and face the day; truly, some are better than others. But it takes work and risking more hope again.
I don’t know if these things are “enough” to create a moderate to significant depressive state. I call it as it is today for me. I tried to clarify events and my responses. For how I react shows me my perspective and deeper feelings. Why have I in other times been quite able to “bounce back as usual”? Why have I felt more alone than before? Why is it tougher to well protect myself from what feel like a bunch of harder knocks? And why are more sleepless nights gaining the upper hand, and heavier days being distracted by ruminations that net too little progress? I have been stopped by the accumulated life happening this time. One can get weary. I find what works and does not, what to seek that will enable greater well being. And thus, to be a better parent, spouse, grandmother, friend, sister.
I am more a “yo-yo” for the first significant period since I drank or used drugs so long ago. So I attend AA meetings. I don’t want to drink or use but I don’t want to be on a “dry drunk”, either. I want to be better than this. I go and I sit and listen to the group’s collective wisdom and experience. I know no one at these new meetings out here but I need to listen in silence for now.
I go to church at times. I read Scripture and other spiritual offerings. I read daily meditations and find meaning that helps. I pray for whatever it is I need to be stronger, be kinder, more adaptable and accepting. The courage to let things be. A lack of acceptance can be a stalling point for me. I have to yield to life more, even as I stand up and keep moving. And that movement daily takes me outdoors, without which I could not locate a deeper peace amid the storms of living.
I write, I draw, I listen to music and sing and dance about. I know the power of creating, its deeply restorative effects. But some days….even that seems hard. And that has scared me some.
For so long I have thought, Oh, I am pretty good at taking care of myself. And I have a spouse who can be here for me, too, in many ways. I know the methods by which to bolster and keep steady myself. And about effective therapy services, which I am willing to use whenever needed, so seek one now. In the end it continues to be a process of learning and experiments, the daily smaller gains and losses. And it will be myself once more who rescues me, along with the durable core and support of my faith. It always has been. I am not a user of psychoactive drugs even for mental health and it isn’t due to not finding them valuable but because I know from experience what else to do, and prefer to do that, as it has worked. I am open to suggestions. Let it not be said that I am unwilling to gain greater understanding. Or to practice that authentic acceptance which comes hard, yes, but can be done if it is the right thing, the best thing.
The good news is that I am not nineteen, nor in the grips of the kind of acute distress that takes me to such terrorizing darker places. I have lived that, and I am done with that. And I am an action taker; I am not paralyzed. I am thankful for all this. But I remain sad and confounded more than I want to be. I am impatient to become a braver and better person still. I got a bit of decent input from my brain as I wrote, more ideas so there is more hope. We all must keep searching, reaching, learning, and not letting go of hope–it is what is available to us in times of trouble.
If these tears must fall and fall again, well drat and damn it and so be it. I must require a true and hearty cleanse. I will not dry up, I will not evaporate. If I feel hollowed out by it for awhile there will be more amazing and tough experiences to occupy those spots. I am just another person, a woman who will not rest until life is ever fully embraced, its variations of light and shadow attended to–its dignity discovered daily… and its steady shining, shining through the murky gloaming, upon this path of dirt, brier, sand, sweet grass, blossom–and humblest rock, which after all, tells stories, holds secret gems.
Something “once experienced and done” might again shadow your life, my life. It does not have to own it.Take back your unique and inviolable self still deep within you. That is what I still do.
A recent Sunday afternoon I had the pleasure of spending hours by myself along the Willamette River. I head to the water when I feel less inclined to tackle significant, frequently ascending and descending trails close to our home. It is not far to the river paths, happily. The deeper truth is that I love bodies of water and this river (as well as the more powerful Columbia River) has drawn me from the day I moved to the Pacific NW in 1992. It is close at hand nearly everywhere I go in this part of Oregon.
I offer these shots from that afternoon of delights. It was cold and windy and partly sunny—perfect for power walking or loitering, pausing to admire various sights. The rolling, changing river as it grazes or gouges the banks of earth pulls me toward it like a magnet. The rushing or slapping sounds it generates; the reflections of light and shadow on its currents; the birds and other creature activities; the interplay of the elements and the people (and dogs) who come to benefit from its restorative beauty year around: a place of pleasure, wonder and meditative opportunities.
I also enjoy public art works and a stop at viewing platforms at the three parks I visited (George Rogers, Foothills, Roehr)
I’ve not gotten far on contemplating this new decade. In fact, I am barely attuned to the idea of a brand new year. I try to get serious and come up with clear goals, those things good for you like kale, but my notepad remains empty beneath the brief heralding of 2020. Maybe it is my age–is passing of time more irrelevant than it was at 20, 30 40 and so on? Some say more important but it does speed by, then slow down, even pause a split second or two–all as though I’m captive in an oddly edited video. Naturally, I see the past/present/future linked and pertinent to anyone’s identity. It just doesn’t seem as confining to me as it did when younger.
I was thinking, for example, about a class in film making and photography that I took at age 19…50 years ago …and I still want to take a class on film making and 35 mm photography. It was thrilling, that dark room. It would be a different course now but the spring of creative energy and intellectual passion are not less than before. I have plenty I’d love to do–and maybe I will get it done, and maybe I won’t. It was the same back then. But nothing so critical as back then hinges on my decision, only whether or not I fulfill my own desires. That was not the case in 1970, all life met head on with a restless, at times painful urgency, an inbred hunger for perfection, my intense dreams replete with plans for two or three Great Things before the next decade roared in. God forbid that I Not Accomplish Much. I can’t say I did by some standards, but there were other matters of importance, human life being surprising as it is.
Some things came to be, then, some did not come to be. Now I plan less, live more, much oftener in good ease. More spontaneously. I have my calendar with instructive and colorful notations on it already, conspicuously hung. But I know anything is likely to change. I don’t have the power to keep the unexpected from occurring, after all. I can shape my personal time, perhaps some space and events therein, but I cannot perform omnipotent acts.
My life is now in part reflective of the photo shared above. Gathered together: newer and older, inherited and intentionally acquired, chipped but functional, and lovely if spare, open to possibilities and accompanied by light and shadow, comforts of written and spoken language and, though you cannot hear it, music. In this case (from a genre termed “light classical” on TV’s “Music Choice”), a piano sonata by Mozart. I can feast on silence but music suits me more as perpetual winter grayness is absorbed into everything…a humorless palette that needs tonal brightening to be appreciated.
Tea or coffee with almond milk sits close by sooner or later, and chocolate. (Food is sometimes an afterthought. Chocolate covered nuts and fruits are preferred to get a little of the food tucked in.) The chipped china cup and saucer–one more thing that got marred in the move we made, yet still good in the hand. If I am not on my feet doing this and that day into night, I am sitting with a cup or mug, writing tools, my thoughts and a soft light, a stack of books at the ready.
It is 2020, I know, yet how many things remain the same despite that change. Little seems so different from the long past. Much has advanced, self-destructed or worse, it is true. And my generation certainly protested, we marched, demanded a higher national conscience and much better quality of life–equal rights and reproductive rights, cheaper or free and much more informed, expansive education for all. And several goals were met. And also, there were so many lives lost to causes.
Still, those days, these times: the essence of who I am remains, with suitable variations. Like it is for a mature tree, the core of personhood has decades of growth rings, marks left by adaptive responses to the environment, to a myriad interconnections with others that organically or perhaps shockingly came to be. It isn’t only in ind; it is in my very cells and in my soul. We may become ourselves–show ourselves– quickly after birth, I think. But then we tune ourselves up again and again as we grow and conquer and falter, readjusting to circumstances and altering needs.
So what does 2020 mean to me in a personal sense? What is changed or is anticipated? (Note: I do think globally but don’t write strictly of politics here, and am not in the mood to write of it now despite knowing that all that happens around us impacts in some way. The world shares its energy; if the energy wave that flicks us seems small, it still is there. We cannot survive and thrive in exclusivity, despite sometimes wanting to do so.) If I consider my singular life for a moment, I may learn something new here.
First, I have actually lived to see the new decade arrive. A fortunate and necessary grace.
I can’t count on it as it is not a given. My car was totaled in an accident. It might have totaled me. But did not. My heartbeat might have taken utter leave as I enjoyed a brisk walk this morning since heart disease has nagged me 20 years. But it did not. I might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But was not. I’ve also had more stress (due to many life changes plus a health issues for Marc and me) than I can recall encountering in a very long while. But have not retreated, blithering, to the corner (at least not for long) remaining heaped in a soggy ball. And likely will not this year. I have endured harder years and known less joy by far.
Second, this April the grand-baby twins will have been here for an entire year.
Alera and Morgan were not here last January, they were wriggling and snuggling while waiting to arrive. But it was possible they may not have been able to stay there long enough as our daughter was a high risk mother with high risk babies. She’d been informed she’d likely never have children due to severe growth hormone deficiency and other hormone issues since birth. But things can change with right help. And the baby girl-people are strong, well, luminous and such fun.
Third, I am not moving this year. Change can be made to happen or not, at times, and this is not happening.
I almost argued for a change of address to save more money in the long run. But we did this move in 2019. It was taxing. Month by month it has become better for the best reasons. It has enriched my thinking and doing being out here among impressive woodlands, in a pretty place right outside Portland. Never wanted to live a suburban lifestyle, it just doesn’t hold the rhythms and textures I love. It was either city center or the country for this woman–and I’ve enjoyed both with many moves during my life, a suburban town tossed in a couple of times. But this spot has its charms, more quaint town than suburb. And we’re five minutes away from baby girls and their parents, fifteen from another daughter. I can still getto my son and sister within a half hour or less. So I am for now stuck here and starting to like it, surprise. And regarding finances: I’m deliberate with finances for the most part, and do worry about the future at 3 a.m. But some things have to be done in faith. This was one of them. There are babies right here. Much to learn and share.
Fourth, I can write more comfortably as well as edit photos better this year.
This is no small thing. I now have a new Dell Inspiron 15 5000 that I was reluctant to buy (the money thing, though on the cheaper end). But Windows 7 was not much working, anymore, and was not to be supported soon… so my limping Sony Vaio had to be sidelined. Since I am no whiz on the thing–it’s about intuition, trial and error and learning pretty fast I guess–this new machine is a godsend. It does what it is supposed to do; it displays all with orderly clarity. No more cussing at my desk every hour or more as I labor. Or push away and give up for a day. Which means my blood pressure will improve and my creative juices will rise to the occasion with far less interference. I will get more done–ah, this so relieves and heartens me! And Marc will have more peace.
Fifth, I expect to be outdoors a great deal, and not just on sidewalks or attractive balcony.
Is this different? Perhaps not. But some years it has been many city walks and parks (admittedly, still scintillating, refreshing), whereas now it is all woodsy pathways. I might find more routes in city center, though–I miss gazing at varied architecture. And I would like to hike, explore more; the beaches, forests and mountains around here are fabulous as ever. But I know this for sure: walking fixes nearly everything. Writing does the most good for me on a regular basis but walking loosens and polishes ideas as well as being more generally kind to soul and flesh. Such meanders are meant for humans to right the body, mind and spirit.
Oh, plus, I have a gym membership gratis with our housing. So: swimming, treadmill, Zumba, rowing, etc. as needed. Another good year to keep on shaping up.
Sixth, I may find myself designing houses soon. And composing music. Well, to some degree.
They are old plans of action that want to be made anew, that’s all this is. Another daughter and my son told me there are countless apps online to enable those creative forays. Who knew there were so many choices, even for free? So I have made notes and will check them out. I cannot imagine a life without creative activity, no matter my skill level. I don’t demand perfection of myself, not with these endeavors, at least. I wanted to design–and sketched quite a few, built a couple models– houses as a kid. I wrote music as a youth and even as an adult awhile. I can still do both if I want to do. So often we get in our own way. I need to get out of mine more.
And there is that art class I keep intending to take. And didn’t I mention film and photography?
You cannot ever stop learning unless you desire stagnation with resultant boredom. There is not nearly enough time to gather in wonderful bits of knowledge to peruse and use. I am as excited this year as every other year to just keep my mind a-humming with new ideas and experiences.
Seventh, my spiritual life could use more, not less. Of prayer, yes, of sacred moments. But I also just need to stay alert to the shining heart of life, to root out hidden treasures, and keep my being open to grace. The heat of passionate engagement with life’s small miracles can cool, leak away in minuscule woundings as well as grave trials. It is easy to let perplexing moments, those cruelties and hardships of my small life–not to mention those of the billions who make up humanity–transform me into a more jaded person. Or be turned into one who becomes dis-empowered. Empty and unmoved.
But I won’t have it. I wasn’t born to not pay attention. To not take action. To not embrace. To not believe in greater possibilities. We can always be more than we think, better than we imagine. We are made of cosmic stuff; we live our lives in part within realms of Spirit because we are more than flesh, blood, sinew, bone, neurological labyrinths, and our mad self will with many faulty choices. Everything in God’s creation reflects a vital complexity of the magnificent infinite story. Can we not see that for the grand good fortune it is?
I claim my part. Not vaulted, nor far-reaching in scope. But this life is mine, to use as can be of benefit as long as breath is in me. I will be celebrating 70 this spring if all goes well. I care much less than I thought, but it is quite okay with me. I mean, what’s another year? We move through time like secretly winged things, catching the updrafts where we can.
Well, I have to write when I need to understand more. Now that I have some insight, my friends, this is how I see 2020. This particular day. Maybe not tomorrow. But not so differently than before I undertook the exercise. I suspect I am fairly ready for what may come, but then again I may not be. I have been taught a bunch of things this past year and more to come. I carry a bit of goodly knowledge from many years of surviving, growing. Perhaps we don’t quite know what we are made of until we have need to know it.
I do persist in tending an intrinsic hope, despite tatters and moans. Hope for what is good for me and for you. May you each care well for your life and loved ones… and whomever and whatever else you can manage.
I walk into the library this afternoon without knowledge of any special event. My stop is impulsive, convenient on the way from an errand. I do enjoy our public library a great deal and often feel thankful that I can take home any book or other media for free. But now I am staring at the ample back of a woman while listening to a very good cellist perform. I am trying to capture the cellist as a video on my cell phone. He is playing a most sonorous cello that is plugged in so the notes are “electric” in effect. Shortly I give up trying to get him on my cell, as said audience member keeps readjusting position in her chair, blocking my view. And she is dancing in her seat a little, primarily with shoulders. (I am calling her “Sunny” because that’s how she feels, despite her severely cut hair.) But I can hear him, so catch his cello notes while videotaping the floor or Sunny’s back. (Rather late it occurs to me I might have moved or recorded his performance as a voice memo.)
An older man–tall, dignified and possessed of a beautiful head of white hair–is shepherded to a seat. He is blind. It is made clear the view is no needed to enjoy the concert. I wonder about the man–if he has always been blind, if he lost his sight to illness or injury. He is unperturbed by anything, focused wholly on listening as far as I can tell. I decide to do the same.
But am not altogether successful. My mind drifts easily at concerts. Music of all sorts grabs my attention and may truly enthrall me but it also ignites several bursts of ideas, cinematic images, random thought trains I follow until I fall off and get back to the performance. Today there are jaunty pieces played; melancholy ones; two straight-up Bach sonatas; complex original compositions with several overlays of musical lines and harmonies thanks to his electronic equipment. Some of it is experienced as a maze within a maze that creates lush landscapes, gives rise to pathways that take me to here and there, usually ending with a waterfall. And then the music impacts me more like a sophisticated construct, a dreamy contemporary high rise through which I wander and climb, peer about. Often alone, indistinct figures come and go.
And I think of my own cello. How I would have loved to play like the artist–the jazzy pieces, anyway. I studied classical music until 18; some years later I played more as I wished. My cello now sleeps against the wall of my bedroom. No, more likely it is in a coma, as it has been unattended too long. Not nourished. I think of opening the hard protective case often but cannot: it may have cracked again along old lines of ruin that it endured decades ago being transported from Michigan to Tennessee. The original cracks were repaired by my father’s skillful hands. Later as they reopened I got them repaired again; they cost me dearly. I played it some once more. And it sounded nearly good as new awhile but I didn’t play as easily. And I stopped altogether. Yet it is mine, it is in that burnished wood that resides a good length of personal history. It is also a possession of imperfect beauty, of a body with its own voice, even if stilled for now. And it yields stories just standing there. I touch it in passing. My cello is oddly as adored as ever, though I have little substantial bravery left for making music.-serious music, anyway. (Singing to the twin grand babies is far different.)
It takes me to my sister, who played her exceptional cello professionally an entire life, almost until death at 78. She was not an improviser, generally; all that she played was musically clean and deep. Sometimes fun, in a perfected way. I also liked to stand behind the piano bench as she sat at her shiny grand piano; I’d sing all the old standards she wanted to play. We grew up this way. It was a way of being. Our family of seven would gather at our modest, worn baby grand from time to time, but especially during Christmas. Our father, a violist primarily, played well enough, sang along. My mother might join in, a rare exception as she thought her singing not up to snuff. It was quite good enough, her voice; she left music making to him and us children, is all. She had other interesting talents. I can see her laughing as she winds up a tale of who and what she saw on her way to the grocery store. I can see her at her sewing machine, stitching rapidly, perfectly the seams of a burgundy velvet bodice with a pink drapey skirt for me.
I blink twice. Back to the present, though any present is threaded with strands of our pasts no matter the intention, whether conscious or not. Some things only resurrect it more clearly than others.
The woman, Sunny, in front of me: her dress is true vivid red excepting one third of a vertical area from neck to waist.This panel is configured with narrow black and white stripes. Around her neck is draped a sheer scarf that is also black and white but large plaid. Her earrings are cherry colored, little beaded baskets, cheerful and swingy. Her hair is short, blondish-brown but she is older, perhaps my age. It’s how she wiggles in her seat to ease discomfort; the boots on her feet being sensible; soft lines folding up along her jaw as she turns her head. But that dancing spirit!–her shoulders are sliding to and fro. She taps her foot in time. Is she a musician or a music appreciator only, a retired dancer or maybe someone who just needs to move and happily so? The value for her is in open engagement, the simple joy of it and many are smiling, responding with gentle movement. The blind man sits with eyes closed, is still.
The scarf Sunny wears is elegant but not too elegant for this afternoon concert. It’s finely knotted, straggling ends lay along her upper back; they move as she moves. I do love scarves, and wear them often though not today. My love of them perhaps originated with my mother and Marinell, both of whom had many and used them often. There are scarf wearing women and those who are not; I think the same is true of men, anymore. My husband wears a charcoal and white tweedy wool scarf in winter and I like that. I collect scarves for all seasons, pull them out to dress things up or to make the ordinary less so or feel warmer as a sudden wind finds my neck. They’re not all finely made; I get some from thrift shops. My daughter has given me a few: one which she dyed over its original colors; one she made herself of silk; one that she shibori-dyed by hand with brilliant indigo. I resolve to wear more this winter. And note that Sunny has good taste, not surprisingly considering where I live these days, a place where money is tastefully displayed, never shouted out. But good taste can be appreciated, too.
The piece our cellist is playing rises and falls about us. It is light and dark, rich and simple, warm and bittersweet. I look up to the open second story of the library, see a hand on the edge of its half-wall, then catch a glimpse of a teenager’s face, his longish hair falling forward. He disappears. I’m gratified everyone in the library can hear this good music, enjoys the sudden free gift to us on a rainy winter afternoon.
I may recognize a head farther up. I get up, wander about aisles of book shelves, peek toward the audience in hopes of positively identifying my friend. I don’t know Kathy well but suspect I’d like to; we always seem too busy to get together again. She plays cello; rather, she also has played and is taking lessons once more to brush up on skills. It informs me of her personality some: she has determination–and is brave–and loves music and the making of it. We more than likely have other things in common.
But it isn’t her. The concert is ending. The performer bows and the applause–mine, too–is enthusiastic. Sunny chats with someone and though I can’t see her face I believe her eyes quickly widen in pleasure–and it seems another good thing, I don’t know why, but it’s satisfying to consider as I move down the stacks. Pause to read titles of mysteries. Pause to breathe in the musky scent of older paper, ink and bindings; many books have been on these shelves such a long time, standing tall and at home.
I am obsessed with mystery books lately, not my usual literary novels or other genres of books on bestseller lists. I want to lose myself in a rollicking good story, puzzle out the culprits, enjoy the history or foreign country or unique detective. I have a habit of constantly asking questions, some say too many, like to dig into it all, root out more answers. Or at least possibilities. Why why why? Who-When-What-How? I would like to try writing mysteries more. This is another thing that intimidates me, but in this case it is all the more reason why I want to try harder. It is writing, after all, only words on a screen or paper. But what passion keeps burning in me for just that.
Shortly I check out three books despite not needing more in my bedside or other stacks. Audience members are dispersing. The blind man is moving toward the entrance, and a woman is holding his hand. They look beautiful together, their white hair softly gleaming in the warm overhead lights, their shoulders touching. I think of my parents, how their white hair made them so attractive, how they held hands, loved each other.
I find it a little hard to leave the library. I linger by the display of new books, listen to chatter, drink of peacefulness. Yet there is something nudging me, a shadow at the back of my mind, and it is trying to tell me something important.
It is when I go outside and note the rain is now a decent sprinkle that I look up at the cloud-swathed sky and do remember: my nephew, Reid, died around this time. He took his pain and jumped with it off the Fremont Bridge. He had lived enough of the life he’d embraced but also had so long endured. We had known many years he could leave us in some hard way. There’d been such terrible times, then lulls, then more dark days and nights. One never knew what the next week or month might be like for him as he was afflicted with bi-polar illness, and he drank and used too much. I knew it was agony for him, felt it in his presence, and also was relieved and glad to see him at family gatherings despite–or because–I felt his despair so sharply. As he struggled, I’d ask myself what more could I do, whatever more could be done. We all did. He asked, too. The truth was something else, that he was in many ways preparing to be finished with the high-wire walk though each 24 hours here.
And yet. I so badly wish that it might have been been different. It is a time that has entered my cellular memory, those moments when knowledge of his leaving us did arrive: a brilliant flame put out in night’s cover or the stillness of very early morning as he chose to be no more. It has left a part of me where the lifesaving power of art and the potency of hope and strange and unkind designs of life can collide and hurt, then entwine, wrap around my heart with a long soft rope, squeezing my center until I weep, then giving me something to hold onto again. I know it must be alright, it came to something, it was different than his past; Reid is where he is, not screaming out, not alone, not now.
I tell myself as I often do: God knows everything, God recreates and loves us here now and thereafter, we are made of and bound to and freed by such Love. This I am certain of though I cannot explain it when it seems absurd. I still believe; no, it goes beyond belief, it is the spiritual, the cosmic reality I live within. We are all connected; I cannot ever lose anyone I love.
I start the car, yet sit with forehead on steering wheel as my throat closes. I open a window. Breathe as tears blur vision a moment. They recede as Reid moves through my mind, through the foggy, wet day, toward a gentler dusk. I put the car in reverse, drive to the coffee shop. Singing a song to myself as I drive, “The Wexford Carol”, which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma and Alison Kraus and which I heard recently. It soothes me, releases sorrow, lets in more gratitude.
The coffee shop is packed with couples and teens, friends gabbing, single folks absorbed in their computers. It is warm in there in every way. I sit on a stool and look out the window and I feel okay, even better than okay, sipping my mocha, nibbling a warm slice of banana bread. I have much to care about. I am not afraid to finish this day and begin another.
Then I get a text from my husband. He is in Houston, between flights on his way back from Mexico after a 9 day business trip. He is tired, will be late getting in. I tell him about the cellist whose music and banter delighted, a used bookstore I visited, the warm ambiance of the neighborhood coffee shop, and how I have missed him. And he texts me back exactly what is needed: “I can’t wait to come home. I love you.”