Sunday, October 3, 2010

Taking Risks

Balloonists Richard Abruzzo, native of Albuquerque, and Carol Rymer Davis, Denver, are missing somewhere in the Adriatic Ocean.  They were competing in the Gordon Bennett gas balloon race.

My heart goes out to his wife and their two young children, waiting in Italy for traces of him and his balloon to be found. In my life there have been too many aircraft and people falling out of the sky. I've seen the craters left in the souls of those left standing on solid ground.

Abruzzo's life, and that of his father before him, was focused on ballooning.  He knew the risks, and that most likely was part of the allure of the sport.  Did his wife sign on for sharing that risk?  Did his children?  Will they understand that Daddy loved the sport enough to risk going away from them?

When does risk-taking become foolhardy? In the balloon race, many competitors landed their balloons because of bad weather. The Abruzzo team decided to continue.  One of the last transmissions from Richard was, "I am in a thunderstorm; the situation is not easy. We are headed for coast but not in danger." According to the Albuquerque Journal, minutes later he said, "Descending upon, descended, descending rapidly upon the sea." Reports are that the balloon descended at a rate of 50 miles per hour.

We need to take risks to feel alive. According to some, if you haven't had a little shiver of fear each day, you aren't living hard enough. But how much risk is enough? When does that shiver of fear turn into a drive for the adrenaline fix? What does it take to feel alive?

Friday, September 24, 2010

When Stress Reduction Causes Stress

In recent years I've read many articles about the miraculous health benefits of pets. I believe what those articles say, but I have a question about pet ownership as a method of stress reduction:

Should pet owners take responsibility for negative side-effects?

Here's my story of how one kind of stress reduction caused stress for an innocent party :

After weeks of dry weather, a powerful midnight storm brings reviving rain to my thirsty neighborhood. In the early hours of the morning after, I lace up my running shoes and take off toward a dirt trail along the nearby Mariposa drainage, anticipating the thrilling uplift of solitude in rejuvenated riparian splendor. But before I leave my own driveway, the neighbor's dogs pitch a fit, barking and lunging at their fence as if I'm an evil intruder about to invade their territory. Even though I should be used to it, the sudden ruckus startles me from smooth reverie to spiky adrenaline infused anxiety.

A few minutes later, I turn onto the path that follows a sandy rise above cottonwoods and Russian olive trees. My heartbeat steadies as I inhale the savory thanksgiving scent of sage and the honey fragrance of blooming chamisa. Then my nostrils flare and recoil in a tight pinch against the nasty stench of reconstituted dog turd, given new life by the same rain that coaxed perfume from the high desert plants. I exhale a four-letter word and step around the pile in my path. When I look up again my view is filled by the glistening, brand new, forest green doggy doo-doo pick up station, pristine in its virginity.

Across Montano the trail passes behind a housing development. At this hour of going-to-work or waiting-for-the-school-bus, most of the backyards are empty. I hear birds twittering and the whir of distant traffic. I relax into a meditative pace and watch a desert cottontail hopping a mere two feet ahead of me.
An explosion behind the fence on my left jerks me back to reality and propels my bunny buddy into the underbrush. A dog, someones beloved pet no doubt, is hurling his body against the wall, red-lining my heart rate in a rush of fight or flight response. While the one dog assaults the pine boards in silence, his neighbor jumps high to show his menacing grimace above the pickets and a third dog bays like a coon hound who has treed his quarry.

My mantra shifts from Sanskrit to profanity and I scramble to the opposite side of the weed choked, muddy ditch. There's no time to scuff the mud off my shoes or quiet my racing pulse before a pit bull on a twelve-foot leash lunges at my knees. His owner makes a half-hearted pull on the leash and scowls at me. I'm confused...he's mad at me for infringing on his right to relax or...?

On my way home I rant about personal responsibility until I see a young woman pushing a twin stroller while controlling two dogs on a double leash. I watch her put on a plastic bag as if it were a glove, pick up poop and then turn the glove back into a bag with a practiced twist. I continue my rant with even greater vehemence now that I have a model for the positive side of my argument.

What do you say, readers? Where do you stand?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Paper or Plastic?

What is the best way to handle newspaper delivery when we travel? Do we call the delivery boy and let him know the house will be vacant? Shall we rely on our neighbor's kindness to pick up the newspaper each morning? Maybe we should just cancel the delivery permanently.

Most, but not all, of the content of our local newspaper is available online, but still requires a subscription.  It's a couple dollars less per month than home delivery. Would I sit at my computer and read the paper as thoroughly as I do the paper version?  Probably not. I don't have an IPad or a portable device that would make reading it a bit easier.

My environmentalist daughter would argue that the amount of paper we recycle each month with a newspaper subscription warrants an electronic version.  But the same daughter, wearing her journalist hat, decries the demise and downsizing of newspapers and magazines and argues for the paper version.

I'm rapidly becoming old-fashioned, I guess, but I like the feel of the newspaper in my hand as I settle into my leather easy chair in the mornings, cup of tea steaming beside me. Reading the paper has been a part of my morning routine for a long time, and I am loath to give it up.  Reading my computer screen, even if I can read it on my laptop while sitting in my easy chair, just isn't as comfortable. And how would I work the crossword puzzle?

I bought an electronic reader recently, a Barnes and Noble Nook, and I love having the whole world of books accessible to me as I travel. But I am surprised: I miss the simple pleasure of looking at my bookmark at the edge of the book and noting how much more I have to read.  Seeing the page numbers at the bottom of my Nook screen just doesn't give me the same pleasure.

I'm a toucher: I want the feel of paper in my hand. Give me technology but leave my newspaper alone. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

How to Relax

Relaxation sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? I believe in the benefits, but I have trouble making time for it. If only my urge to rest were as persistent as my sweet-tooth (I'm thinking about Ruth's cookies in the previous blog post!)....

When I do remember to take a break, meditation is helpful. I've found several pleasant relaxation aids on YouTube. Just enter *relaxation music* or *guided meditation* in the search field; there's something there for every taste. One of my favorite guided meditations encourages writers especially. You can find it on Mark David Gerson's website.

Recently I happened to hear about an activity that caught my attention -- it's called nature-sitting. Designed as a field trip for college biology students, it offers a personal encounter with nature. Nature-sitting requires a setting like a park or open space with minimal traffic or other distractions. Students find a comfortable spot and sit quietly for an hour observing nature. They're encouraged to sketch, take photos, and write poetry or prose to record their observations (but no iPods, please). Zoology students at Miami University shared their experiences in poems, drawings, and photos that whet my appetite for relaxation.

I have an appointment with myself at 10:00 AM on Saturday, September 11. I'm going to take a camp chair, my sketchbook and writing pad down to the Rio Grande Bosque and experience my first nature-sit. You're welcome to join me there, or you could set up a parallel nature-sit in your own neighborhood or time zone. We can compare notes later.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Do Nothing

     So many of us are caregivers, and many more of us are worriers.  We want to be able to fix the world:  men have no proprietary edge on that. When we can't fix what is broken, we take care of it in the best way we can. There is healing in being able to do something, anything, to make the situation better. In my case, caring for my sister means baking cookies and sending cards and eating breakfast with her when I visit. Those things won't heal the cancer, but they help heal the soul, both hers and mine. And that's about all we can ask for, since we aren't really in control of the universe.
    Caregiving itself is a heavy task, one I'm happy that I needn't do on a 24/7 basis. How do we refresh ourselves when the energy we have been giving to others depletes our own reservoirs?
    Martha Beck in the September issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, writes an article titled "Lying Low," the gentle art of surviving when things fall apart. "If nothing's working for you, if you feel as though you're pushing against the grain, the most productive thing you can do is nothing." Step four in her article is to "Rest like you mean it." I breathed a deep truly relaxed sigh after finishing her article.
    When there is nothing to be done, do nothing, and then bake cookies.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What Do You Do?

What do you do when there's nothing to be done?

When Guillain-Barre Syndrome struck my grandson Brody, I would have done anything to make it go away. But there was absolutely nothing I could do. His mothers stayed with him in the hospital to work the magic of their nurturing; his doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, and occupational therapists tended to his medical needs. I stood on the sidelines and watched him suffer. My heart froze and splintered into a billion tiny fragments. I tried to bargain with The Universe, but she ignored my plea to transfer the illness to my body. My life hung suspended as if a pause button had been pressed, to be released only by a sign of improvement in Brody's condition. I tried another bargain: what if I offered my life in exchange, would The Higher Power heal him then? A flood of emotion lifted my spirits at the moment that I realized that I loved sweet Brody so much, I would die for him. It wasn't plausible, but I was willing, and somehow that gave me hope.

Now, almost three weeks later, Brody is on the long, tiring road to recovery. There are many ways I can help him now, and that heals my heart. Life goes on and "normal" continues to redefine itself day by day. But in the background the same question lingers:

What do you do when nothing can be done?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Paths Past and Future

So. We are now at that age when we have decided it is our turn, time for us to do what we want. Finished playing the second to spouse, family, job. 
The first task is to determine if we still remember how to put ourselves first, how to allow our desires to come to the forefront. Stop forever compromising for the benefit of others. And that is no easy task.

Then, if we are going to do what we want, we have to figure out what that is. Really. Not what someone else wants, not what we think we should want, not what we have always done. Then come the questions. Where, and with whom?

Is it just me, or is anyone else tired of living someplace because that is where the spouse is happy? Am I the only one who finds herself a completely different person, with different interests, than she was at the time she married that person? And is mine the only spouse who never changed? When you contemplate the next chapter in your life, can you think of wonderful things to do, but really really don’t want to do them with that person? Do others simply hibernate rather than force a situation that seems to have only solutions that make (keep) at least one person unhappy? 

So, first, the question of where we live. What if I push my wants and then even I end up not liking it? Then we are both unhappy. What if I love it, but he is miserable?  It is such a huge responsibility to have to prove that it is the right move. 

Then, how do we find NEW things to do that we both like? Is it just selfishness that makes me NOT want to share, or is it the fear that he will drag down my joy? Is it so wrong for me to want a partner that lights up over the same things as I do? Of course, the spouse would like nothing better than for me to light up over the things he loves ... so are we both chafing at the same bit? Or do men just get used to having their way and never feel regret if we are tired of the ride?

Finally, if there is a way to prevent this growing apart over the years, it is a moot point now. Great to share with the children so they can stay in step with their partners, but not helpful for us. And is it even possible, or is it a gender and societal issue? Relationships always require some compromise, but I wonder if there are couples out there who have traversed the child-raising years and are still HONESTLY walking together on the same path.

More importantly, are you out there, like me, finding yourselves with very little intersection, but discovering a way to come back together? I would love to hear your solutions.

                                                                                    Guest post

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Boundaries of Life

During a recent trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, a sign titled "Boundaries of Life" caught my eye. 

What are the boundaries of life? What boundaries do we set for ourselves and those around us? Do we allow others to encroach on what we need for a rich life? Sometimes relinquishing our needs for others is necessary and the right thing to do, but often we have developed the habit of putting ourselves last, and not speaking out for what we need. We live above the treeline, in the barren places, when we could live in the warmer and gentler forests, nourished by the love of those around us. Our lives needn't be windswept and lonely. By sharing and being assertive about our needs and desires, we garner the bounty of shared visions and goals. We play not just a supportive role, but create a partnership of survival and growth.

Living above the treeline is not always our choice. Circumstances may force us to struggle.  Our version of snowdrifts, wind, avalanches and exposure can be illness, job loss or relationship problems. In the mountains, nature forces trees surviving at the highest altitude into twisted shapes called krummholz. We've seen these in the Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque where the tree grows with the prevailing winds. On the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, krummholz grows just below the treeline along the ground. The twisted horizontal growth occurs when the normally upright tree tip or leader is blasted by wind-driven ice crystals during the winter. This winterkill of the leader prunes the top of the tree and promotes fuller growth of lower branches.

When we are buffeted by challenging circumstances, we tend to hunker down, lying in the swales and depressions of our daily lives.  But we can still survive.  The winter storms will prune us and shape us, but fuller growth, even though in a different shape than when we began, will be our reward.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Desired or Required?

Like my co-blogger Ruth and her mother-in-law (see previous post, "The Value of a Woman") and many more women, I'm sure, I am looking for a better balance between what's desired and what's required in my life. Whether I was trained to it or born to it, in my early years I saw my needs as secondary to those of my parents, my brother, and then my husband, children, and friends. Like the archetypical obedient child, I did what was expected of me. I did what was required to the best of my ability, and I didn't spend much time thinking about what I desired. If I wanted or needed something and fulfillment didn't interfere with anyone else, I usually got it. If my desire conflicted with another's, I deferred to what I interpreted as their greater need.

I want you to know that I thought I was being objective, carefully weighing those needs against each other and concluding that the other person REALLY wanted theirs, while I, well, I could get along quite well without having my own way all the time, couldn't I? And didn't it make me happy to see my loved ones satisfied and fulfilled? And didn't I get comfort from avoiding conflict and the possibility of rejection?

In recent years, though, I've started to wonder. Did I perhaps go overboard with the self-sacrifice? Did I turn myself into a wishy-washy doormat instead of the loving and giving nurturer I thought I should be? I'm often envious of people who seem able to stick to their guns and get their own way 90% of the time; but, in general, I don't like them or respect them. The people I admire stand up for themselves in a most pleasant way and get what's important without walking all over everybody else.

My ideal self is assertive without being aggressive, accommodating without being subservient, a partner rather than slave or master. Old habits are hard to break, but I'm strong. I am proud of the woman who is emerging as I move toward my ideal.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Value of a Woman

What is the value of a woman? Searching the internet, I found religious sites, romance and seduction sites, and even a couple of songs, "The Value of a Woman" and "A Woman's Worth." They all seemed to DE-value a woman, making her an object of desire or servitude. Searching for "the worth of a woman" led me to financial sites, a domestic violence site, and a celebration of "Women of Worth" in Vancouver.  Now we're talking.

The 6th annual Woman Of Worth (WOW)™ Conference  held in Vancouver this past May was titled: Empowered Leadership: Celebrating the Magnificence of Women.  One extraordinary day for 800 women that impacts a lifetime ...  The session tracks were Health | Wealth | Leadership | Empowerment | Chocolate Fountains!  I must put this on my calendar for next year. The WOW Event

According to Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General, United Nations, "The future of the world depends on women."  Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” 

One group of women which has taken action to change the world is Women for Women International. The organization helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives.  Their theory of change: "When women are well, sustain an income, are decision-makers, and have strong social networks and safety-nets, they are in a much stronger position to advocate for their rights. This philosophy and our commitment to local leadership builds change and capacity at the grassroots level." Women for Women International

We won't feel empowered to change the world until we grant ourselves permission to love and respect ourselves.  Girls are often taught not to brag, not to think too highly of themselves, and to serve others first. Being assertive and realizing that we have something to offer the world comes slowly for many of us, and some never reach that point. On her 80th  birthday, my mother-in-law announced, "I'm 80 and I'll do what I want."  She rejected new recipes to try and invitations to attend events for which she had no interest.  I loved the woman she became, full of jokes and more relaxed than I'd ever seen her.  I rejoiced, but I was saddened at the same time.  What a shame to wait until she was 80 to do the things she wanted to do. I vowed then to live my life the way I want it now, and not wait till I'm 80. I value the person I really am, and put aside the small quiet voice that says, "Not worthy."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Something of Value

Since the burglary, I've spent hours searching. First I had to search the house to identify what had been stolen. Then I set off on a seemingly endless soul-searching trek. My advice to myself: When life sends you a lesson, make a lesson plan. It looked like my lesson referred to materialism, and I beat myself up about my attachment to things. I tried to convince myself that I would be a better person if I didn't replace the stolen items. As I grieved over my trinkets and treasures I didn't feel better or wiser; I felt vulnerable, lost, disillusioned, and spiritually impoverished.

When the police detective asked about the extent of our loss, I quoted the prices of the laptop and MP3 player, but I told him that my jewelry wasn't worth much beyond sentimental value.

In the days following the police report, I had to search my memory to come up with an accurate inventory for our insurance claim. Some of the memory jolts stung like a physical blow -- my grandmother's Bavarian crystal necklace, my dad's high school class ring, the Turkish puzzle ring Fred gave me 43 years ago. I had carried these bits and pieces with me all my life and around the world. The hole in my spirit deepened with each addition to the list.

Before my inventory was complete, our insurance claims adjuster asked me for an approximate figure for the jewelry. I couldn't answer. "Would it be less than $2500?" he asked. I felt relieved to reply in all honesty, "No doubt."

Being the person that I am, I entered my inventory in an Excel worksheet. REPLACEMENT VALUE: GRAND TOTAL =SUM(E1:E91). I compressed my lips between my teeth and pushed ENTER. The dollar amount confirmed my growing suspicion: my jewelry had been worthy after all! In a font as clear as Arial Bold my lesson spelled out its meaning. To validate it, I went to my Native American Medicine Deck, shuffled, and drew one card:

"The key word is respect. Learn to assert, without ego, what you are. Respect follows. You must first respect yourself. Walk tall and be proud of the accomplishments you have made."

I take this to heart. My loved ones have told me often enough that I undervalue my talents and accomplishments, just as I had undervalued my jewelry collection. At the end of this search that began with a burglary, I've found a reminder that I am indeed something of value. Now I'm gathering courage to strut my stuff. Maybe I'll check out that interesting listing in New Mexico Kids! Magazine and learn how to beat my own drum -- or start gathering music for the lullaby CD I've dreamed of making. I want to reach out beyond my boundaries, just to see what's there.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Trinkets and Mementos

The trinkets and mementos I gather are physical reminders of what my mind already knows. They elicit the warm feelings, the excitement, or whatever emotion I felt at the time I acquired the trinkets. To me, the mementos have the value of that special moment. But will my children treasure them as I do? They can't experience what I felt.  Yet, the value of the thing is greatly enhanced by the back story, the "provenance", as Antique Road Show calls it. I can tell my children the stories and maybe they will gain an understanding and appreciation of who I am.  Isn't that why we write memoirs? 
Photos serve the same purpose as souvenirs and trinkets. They remind us of special times. Do we really remember all those vacation moments, or is it only the moments we photographed that stay in memory? Without photos to remind us of slender bodies and once-stylish haircuts and bellbottoms, can we go back in our minds' eye to "how we were?"

Memories are the archaeology of the mind.  We are sometimes surprised by what comes floating unbidden to the surface for us to rediscover.  What remains hidden requires concentrated effort to dig down and reconstruct a time and place and the meaning of our time there. What happens when our mind no longer retains the original memory?  Will the photos and mementos remind us of what we no longer know? 

I'll treasure the memories while I can and  leave the mementos for others to discover and wonder.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Stolen Memories

Recent events sparked a childhood memory. I was seven years old when I begged my mom to put my best Christmas presents, white figure skates and a mother-crafted rag doll, on a chair beside my bed. I wanted to see them first thing in the morning to make sure they were real and really mine.

These last few mornings I've awakened to the painful realization that something special will not be there and will never be there again. My mind's eye goes to my jewelry box and confirms that awful sensation of emptiness.

Thieves came one night while my husband and I were camping in Colorado, enjoying a week on an archeology project followed by a long weekend with our kids and grandkids. We arrived home, tired and happy, to find that our sanctuary had been violated.

My trinkets and treasures, tangible mementos of family and friends, birthdays and anniversaries, trips to exotic places, are gone -- maybe to a pawn shop, or flea market, or worse yet, a dumpster.

I cry. I recover. I cry again. Up and down, I flounder in a vain attempt to keep my head above the waves of loss, violation, anger, and hopelessness. They're only things, I tell myself, don't be so attached to mere things. My friend Ellen tells me to be gentle with myself, and I try. I do. Really.

In my down moments I hear my inner voice ask, is this what it feels like to enter dementia? Are the missing rings, earrings, necklaces, and bracelets a metaphor for lost brain cells in the inevitable decline of ageing?

Those thoughts amplify my misery, so I slide back into contemplation of my desire to live simply and avoid attachment to objects. This burglary is an emphatic reminder, but I'm not sure I'll heed the call. Look, I've already replaced my stolen laptop!

While I'm mourning and struggling, my wonderful daughter is working behind the scenes. She has sent out an appeal to family and friends to give me jewelry to help fill the void. I have received the first piece, a colorful handmade bead necklace strung by my grandson's four-year-old half sister, a child from the same cryobank donor, a child I hope to meet someday. And the second piece is a personal South African treasure of a friend from Foreign Service days, poignantly meaningful because of the connection with overseas experiences.

As my daughter presses into my hand a pair of turquoise earrings given to her by my stepmother, I feel the healing touch of love and empathy. Now I can look forward to the creation of new memories.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Memory is a net

     Memory is a net; one finds it full of fish when he takes it from the brook; but a dozen miles of water have run through it without sticking. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.   

      Can we trust our memories? I recently got into a heated discussion with a friend about the details of an event in which we both participated. She became very angry that the version I remembered was different than what she remembered. Neither one of us wanted to budge from our position.
     Beginning the discussion, I had some questions about how things really happened, but her version contradicted what I was sure had happened.  The more she protested, the more amazed I became: not at the difference in details, but in the sureness each of us had of having the "right" recollection.
     And yet, after she hung up on me, I mulled over the conversation for several hours, and conceded that her version could be right.
     And that frightened me.  How vulnerable we are to suggestion, and how easy it is to incorporate someone else's version of what they saw or think they saw!
     When my husband did aircraft accident investigations, he learned that everyone saw something different in the event, often conflicting with each other.  The reliability of eyewitness reports also has an impact in criminal cases. For a further discussion on this impact, see How Reliable is Eyewitness Testimony?: A Decision By New York State's Highest Court Reveals Unsettling Truths About Juries by Michael C. Dorf and The Problem with Eyewitnesses by Finlo Rohrer of BBC News.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


As a memoir writer I have to wonder how my memories relate to the facts. Of all the events in my life that I could have remembered, why did I choose the ones that stick with me? And do I remember those events accurately as exact truth or do I recall them according to some emotional truth as I perceived it?

John Daniel, author of Looking After, a memoir about taking care of his mother as her memory gradually fades with Alzheimer's Disease, has concluded that "Memory is a system of near-infinite complexity, a system that seems designed for revision as much as for replication, and revision unquestionably occurs. Many details are lost, usually in ways that serve the self in its present situation, not the self of ten or twenty or forty years ago when the remembered event took place."

If John is right and my memories are primarily self-serving, I am presented with the challenge of trying to reach the honest emotional heart of my stories while still paying due respect to factual truth as well as to truths remembered by others who were present at the same events.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Doors open to new vistas and new experiences, and lead us back to old familiar places. But the door won't open if we don't take action to turn the knob. This blog uses the doorknob to explore perspectives on life. Sometimes the door opens wide and sometimes we just catch a glimpse, peeking through the keyhole, trying out other worlds. The doorknob develops a patina with use and time, and so too we develop a patina, a wisdom borne of experiencing and feeling much. This blog will be a conversation, sharing our thoughts and questions about life and its mysteries.