Every year I revisit Bridal Veil Falls where, in 2001 while hiking, I experienced the heart event that garnered me a diagnosis of aggressive coronary artery disease. I was literally brought to my knees by the proverbial “elephant on the chest” that gorgeous early September afternoon. I was 51; my doctors were not optimistic about the future. After stent implants I entered a difficult period in body and soul, but labored long and hard to regain health. It’s possible to take this disease in hand, and for the heart to become even stronger.
It’s been a thrill to once more vigorously hike the trails in Columbia River Gorge as I please. As I trek to the Bridal Veil Falls especially, it is easy to count abundant gifts of life with deep gratitude. The pictures posted are of that waterfall. At the top of the steps to a viewing platform, I collapsed. For a couple of years following my fateful hike this trail frightened me and I could not face it down. Soon I had had enough of intimidation and began to seek it out in August or September to celebrate staying alive. I am about set to head out this year once more.
I love it there: the heady scents of damp earth and dense forest, the rush of water and wind-singing leaves, the birds chorusing and my heart and feet and legs carrying me up and down the rocky paths. I love that the place remains in its wild variations, its cyclical nature and its impartial acceptance of my visitations. I am filled with more joy each year I set out on the trail to Bridal Veil Falls.
(If you are interested in learning more about heart disease, as well as recovery and health maintenance please search for my series entitled “Heart Chronicles” on this blog.)
Dot-to-dot magazines: I was crazy about the cheap newsprint drugstore ones on the children’s rack that cost under a dollar, and successfully lobbied my mother to allow one as a treat. I kept them close at hand longer than one might expect a child-soon to become-a-youth to enjoy them. Whether each page held a fine design of flora and fauna or simple geometric patterns, of easy-to-harder labyrinths or children and grown-ups doing ordinary things–I wanted to have at them.
Pencil sharpened, poised above the page, I studied the few or numerous numbered dots, I predicted the pictorial outcome. Yet felt a thrill, anyway, when bringing it to fruition whether right or wrong. It was like watching a Polaroid snapshot gradually come to life, or colored inkblots on a folded paper develop into a surprising picture as the paper is opened. All I had to do was follow the numbers, dot-to-dot-to-dot– and lo! a small puzzle solved, a rendering awakened. It was simple, relaxing entertainment. I felt far more stimulated and accomplished when doing “word search” features(often included in the magazines), but that was not the goal. The point was to engage in a task (of questionable long-term value) that gave me happy respite. Besides, I was a visual child and creating any sort of graphic design, even dot-to-dot ones, was blissful.
I miss those but I know they can be bought at a news stand. One can even purchase nice books filled with such games. I recently looked them up online. To my surprise, there appeared a large variety of intricately created dot-to-dot designs. They seem like works of art when completed–you can color them, too, and proclaim the picture your own. And those adult coloring books are impressive, as well. There is a profitable market out there in response to demand.
How nostalgic, even enchanting, these pastimes. And how bittersweet that we so crave simpler things, sweeter times, our days or nights softened by the soothing neutrality of such engagements. It is easy escape. Some comfort that costs little but gives generously for a half hour, an hour, as long as we desire. We seek it out as we need it, just as we did as children or youths, then extend our search as adults. It is certainly not always found on the internet or other electronic entertainment sources people flock to with a thirst for something more, bigger, better.
Sometimes it all requires pausing to simplify. Or we are perhaps forced to reassess our options. If we pay attention to our life needs, we will reach out to see what is there, who is there. And we may be surprised by the results.
The past several months– defined by family illnesses, life challenges and ultimately, two family deaths– I have been more persistently musing over connection. To human beings. To our places in the world and universe, to the natural world and to one’s creative muse. To divinity. These are what matter to me. And what I have felt more deeply than ever. Yet my thoughts and experiences have been fractured unexpectedly; my quiet, pedestrian life has been interrupted, shaken up, re-ordered. It has been a period spent swaying between deepened solitude, a slide into a well of quietness, and the more active desire for the company of others. Ordinarily, I would write more hours (perhaps even journal), resurrect meditative and freeing art activities, seek out more music (or create with singing or other instruments, find a computer program for composition), get much more physically active. I have read a lot. These are some of my coping skills, life’s joys. But the changes experienced have required travels and looking outward as much as inward. Being with people, and often witnessing exhaustion etched on faces, eyes revealing shards of anger and waves of anguish. And yet, there have been laughter and tenderness enough to cover us with a softening kindness. Perhaps common human sorrows underlie part of that alchemy.
If you have read my summer posts, you know my older brother died rather suddenly. Then I flew with my spouse, Marc, to North Carolina, traveled through several states to Michigan for an in-law’s memorial and back to N.C., then finally to Oregon again. I flew to Colorado for a week to visit a daughter and her partner, got altitude sickness near the end of all the fun. Then to the Oregon coast for a beach “time out” with and for Marc. The day we got home from that heaven, we attended another memorial at a crowded pub for my jazz musician brother.
Everywhere there have been family members to console and be consoled by, to join hands in what seems an ever-shrinking circle. I have thought of blood ties and of family married into and how they both help hold up the world for me, with me. How they fill my life with colorful moments and surprising reveals. How their lives are so needed in the full constellation of my life, in the balance of what matters most. When one leaves the earth, their unique space is created, not to be filled again. Their lack of physical presence is as a shadow that passes through a doorway from here to there and further than I can quite see, most of the time.
How to maintain the old stable connectivity when people I have known and loved? My parents are gone; one sister; one brother, a sister-in-law. Another sister has mild dementia and sitting across from her recently, she faded before me a moment and I was frightened. Who else? When? How does one prepare one’s self? Of course, we cannot. We only can live daily and when things change, when we lose another someone, we accept that reality slowly, heartbeat by heartbeat.
I again think of those dot-to-dot books. How one stroke could take me to another dot and then a another and another. How I have the choice to lift my pencil and be done right then or to keep that line going to complete the picture–before turning the page. How like living a life…
Though everything, I have been in touch with friends or they have called me, sent me notes, shared a meal with me. I don’t now have but a few, decades-long close friends, but they have been here for me as I am, for them. But one friend is also ill and every passing year is a gift. The others may or may not stay in Portland as not so far ahead, retirement may dictate designing another life in another place altogether. Anything could change. And does. And there can be loneliness in any circumstance.
Portland is becoming massively populated. Expensive. I had to go downtown on an errand and was on a busy thoroughfare I don’t often traverse. I looked up and around at every stoplight. The stores and houses that had been demolished, the cavernous, even monstrous new buildings being erected…it stunned me. After living here since 1992, I have watched small waves of new residents arrive. The last 2-3 years people have rushed to the city and looked for housing where all the action is, “close-in”, as we call it. Some suburbs are also expanding and real estate is hot. But Portland has firm boundaries and the only place one can go is up, so the high rises continue to rise at a rate that keeps many of us breathless. It’s only a matter of time–I keep waiting to hear of it–that my small five-plex will also be sold for a gazillion and as many or more fancy, shiny new condos will inhabit this space. We must migrate to a more affordable elsewhere.
Progress. You have to house the people as they keep coming. I was initially housed in one of my family’s rental homes–fortunate even then. And I hang on to our current comfortable spot a little longer. But how to stay connected when landmarks are altered or removed, when neighborhoods take on a whole new flavor, when your neighbors are often nameless when you barely even blink?
The keys to continuity in a fast paced life have to be resilience and adaptability. Going where the new dots go to see where it all ends up. Or creating one’s own new page. It takes curiosity as well as stamina, tolerance as well as brainstorming.
My husband longs to retire in Michigan, preferably in northern MI. on one of the countless alluring lakes, or even one of the Great Lakes (which are nearly like the ocean but, of course, are not). I understand the pull to that enveloping country, a place that lives vividly inside my mind and heart. But I don’t get why some actually return to their old hometowns. I suspect we cannot reasonably return to the past to embrace it as our present–but people do it, and apparently it works out. It has to be the desire for familiarity as our world becomes more unfamiliar in vital ways. And that hope of connectivity. I may have to move. I research various cities that might suit us as we age, in case we are priced out completely in Portland in a few short years. I’ve moved many, many times since I was 18. And there has always been several somethings or someones that made each move enriching. But I had to keep my ears and eyes open. Make the effort required. I was seldom alone and not for long–I raised five children. But there were always their own needs and wants. Now they’re adults and the architects of their own dreams, searching for the next ones. Though I am happy when they (and their fast-growing kids) include me/us, they owe us nothing.
So I have started to take stock once more, since these continued losses and attendant changes. What is truly left me now? And how can I keep myself in better touch with people? With meaningful activities? This life in all its generous experiences… I have had plenty of the bad and I don’t ever want to miss out on the good stuff. I have a strong desire to share it with others, though I have a penchant for significant solitariness so suitable to writing/creative work. I need to keep looking for options, despite my many forays and sometimes ending up faltering. I worked for a very long, time as a counselor. But I also have participated in numerous writing and a few vocal groups; tried Meet Up groups; engaged with various churches (will get more involved in the current one); taken dance and Tai Chi classes plus joined gyms; taken college classes; been active for decades in recovery groups; done some volunteer work; attended many writing workshops and conferences…well, there is more but that covers the main actions taken so far.
But there is much more I can do. Discovery happens if I just take action– new or old talents and interests to expose and encourage, knowledge to glean, service work to do, friendships to root out and nurture, places to explore in this and other cities and towns, within bountiful nature here or elsewhere. That is how I will stay connected in a way that continues to fill me and then overflow, hopefully, to others.
Because I was taught well long ago to take what life brings you and make something decent of it. To see possibilities and do something useful with them. Make a slim, winkled dot-to-dot magazine fun, give it some oomph. Plunk a melody on the piano, see what develops. Out of the mess, assemble order. Out of the ruins, create anew.
High aspirations, perhaps. But sensible, as well, to me.
As a child, when my family took trips across country in our crowded car (seven of us in that family, too), my mother would point to the landscapes and towns, observe the streets, shops and people and say, “Look out your windows! What do you see? Isn’t that interesting!” And my father would slow down, park and we’d pile out, run to the historical site, or a riverside park for a picnic or walk about a town green and gawk at stately statues, or even visit a strange church if it was a Sunday and sing old hymns with the rest and later have a chat. Just passing through, have agood afternoon. And then we’d tumble back in the car, play word games or sing our harmonized songs the next hundred miles, or tell stories, or be roustabouts, but finally we’d fall sleep that night in some cheap motel, side by side. Full up. Content enough with that day’s adventure and ready–come what may–for the next.
All people, I discovered, are complex human beings in need of home, hearth, good work and a modicum of happiness to share. May I never forget that most primary connection.
View a few pictures of downtown neighborhoods of wacky, wonderful Portland as it tears down and rebuilds:
Now I am home, though still a little tired and saturated with images and thoughts of the last minute trip. Though we flew to North Carolina, a few days later we had a drive to make. The car trip to Michigan from North Carolina was 14 hours last Friday. The next day was spent with family and attending the memorial service for my sister-in-law. Then the third day: back another 14 hours on many roads and five states from N.Carolina to Virginia, W. Virginia, Ohio, MI., then reversed for return. I often passed the time–I read as well–staring out the window as my husband drove. (I’d have been happy to drive but he was caught “in the zone”, and refused my help. Next time it shall be different; he was too tired to endure this stretch of time behind the wheel. But when he makes his mind up…)
It recalled the road trips I’d taken with my parents and siblings as a child around our country, how excited I felt about each place we went. I gawked at the world, happy even though squashed between four siblings in the back seat. Each town was a story even then, every landscape a magnetic space. Everything crackling alive. And it still is, amid the dying…
Marc and I talked on the way there with some banter; we knew it would not be easy the next day. But we fell silent often, thinking of this second loss in two months. And our old lives in Michigan (several decades ago) and those places to which one cannot ever really return for long, not once grown up and gone. And yet those places and times cling like a tenacious aura of the Past, sometimes bright, sometimes dark.
Seeking relief, I filled myself up with natural scenarios beyond the window, sometimes letting out the dry chilled air-conditioned air and letting into the car little gusts that dripped with humidity and was deeply hot: upper-90 degrees F.hot. It smelled good to me, as if rain that has been held back so long it has to sneak in, delicious-green and heady. And heavy.
I was struck, as I always am when traveling these areas, by the endless rise and fall of deciduous trees (far fewer conifers there) that took over foothills and parts of the Appalachian Mountains. Such abundance! The land rose up, split into graceful mounds, spread out in valleys and turned over this way and that, revealing changing light dabbed that daubed the landscape. I watched and snapped pictures, mesmerized. The clouds were astonishing, utterly magical they are from place to place. We also got through a sudden, bombastic thunderstorm.
So this is what I have today: pictures of daring cloud formations, rolling hills amid such old mountains and fecund, open farmland (with “corn at least knee-high by 4th of July”, as they say). A few bugs may be smearing windows. Not the best pictures, I am sure. They are more half-dreaming images of my perceptions along the way. The land and sky were witness to my sorrows and wonderment. And I, a willing audience for their dramatic displays. This life. This earth. The curious existences everyone does lead. And ever-reluctant me, traveling here and there, anyway– and I’m not even done yet for July, two more trips to go!
If you want a variety of sustenance, travel a little bit, or even take a decent walk. And if you want to see where I went, come along…
And so after losses we yet manage–or eventually will–to get up, engage in routines and attend to obligations. And search for glimmers of valuable experience to be absorbed and offered to others. They are everywhere for me; I cannot get enough of life despite its rawness and edges and sudden dismay. Can you, even when your sleep is restless or your head feels crammed with trials? Our bodies, minds and the breadth and depth of our spirits seek more chances to be delighted, moved, changed. And we can do that in healthy and easy ways. A comfortable meander can engage the brain in greater well being; why do we ever want to avoid that? A heart pumping power walk can really stir things up.
Why not go to a park this week-end and remember simpler things? Sit and watch all the humans who persist in enabling peace and fun and respect and care, one to another. It always makes a difference. Here are a few fleeting moments that recently spoke to me. Invite your moments to shimmer more, too. Laugh at the foolishness and yourself. Bring to the fore the pristine clarity of wonder. Breathe intentionally. Let a tiny happiness bloom into something bigger and share it–then take it home with you.
I wanted to write a short story today. I really did, something richly arresting, bright-toned but real. And almost did, as my writing habits are so ingrained a story would have let me shape it and set it free upon this page. Yet what sort of story would it have become?–for elegies of loss are lately becoming a deafening refrain.
But my sister-in-law passed away this afternoon from the damage wrought by that heinous thing, cancer. She has been one of my valued sister warriors. A survivor of life’s harrowing and strange times. A woman whose heart had such breadth and width, whose mind was tough, quick, coiled and ready to work. Any work–even work for abandoned or forgotten creatures. She stood steady amid the draining minutiae of living and knew how to yet find the glimmers of good.
We haven’t seen each other much in decades; we moved, they moved, days rushed us forward, took time away from us. We visited her and my brother-in-law last autumn in Michigan. She was frail then, and persistently alive. Quiet as in a cocoon yet available as she could be. We used to talk a mile a minute, smoking and drinking coffee. Laughing. Her eyes missed nothing, spoke of all she did not say.
I think she still missed nothing of importance. She listened well. But no more.
This is the second loss in a month. First, my brother Gary, now Sherril. The ache is a flame that cannot cauterize such pain; it can feel like danger, this diminishing of the heart’s natural fullness. The remainder after death: an abyss of a surprisingly darker sort. And in it the rising volume of sorrow. Tears can barely do their job, there are too many, and yet not ever enough.
I know, of course–how can we avoid knowing it despite attempts to do so? it waits in our personal realm, our daily news — that we live. And then we die. But each time a dying takes something out of us, a gigantic thing not a small one as it leaves the new absence. Like a drowning in the wake behind a mighty ship. We struggle to keep afloat despite the impulse to slip under. I think some days I am weeping for the world, not just my family, not just friends, but all of us.
There is this bone-deep yearning for more time, more love and stories, more moments when you even do no t one noteworthy thing…. but simply be with one another. Experience has such quality if we only give it its due. Nothing should be ignored or wasted, not the hurt, not bafflement or even outrage. Never the energy of compassion, the ease of simple appreciation. No words ought to be tossed here and there or out the window as if they are useless, or recyclable. They are not, not ever, not really. They are potent. Meant to tell us things we need to hear–and to say. Otherwise, we require the sort of silence out of which Divine Love, a harmony we do not even understand can rise. Inform us of more that needs to be known and done.
The words that she and I shared were quite good enough, even really good. Those conversations, those times are held close, pull me into them as if only yesterday…A dry wit. A rapid fire comeback. We exchanged lines that rang with our truths hidden in a raised eyebrow and fast look, little truths that swelled inside our words with balloons of life and respect.
We always wanted Sherril and my brother-in-law, Bill, to come to Oregon, explore the Northwest, share adventures and belly laughs and even music we might make right here, but it just never got to happen. So today I am posting pictures of the Pacific Ocean that Marc and I enjoyed Sunday for Father’s Day.
I am wanting sea spray to flick its feathery tails at Sherril, for glossy sunshine to slide about her being, the great blueness to carry her far and to whole soul joy. But she is already there, wherever she is. I’m just counting on it.
Let a hallelujah love transform you, be ever prefect as the perfection that fills each star and all gaps between. Oh warrior sister you’ve made it through this quick bitter this long sweet life and now it is done it is done