I sit in the kitchen this morning, thinking it may be my favorite room in the house. After years of indecision, we finally remodeled it, with Kent doing all the work.
While seated at the little round table at its center, I look at the lovingly crafted and designed cupboards — the lazy susan in the corner, the pullout-bin for trash and recyclables, the handy open-fronted drawer containing the paper towel roller with space behind it for an extra roll and dish towels. The under-sink drawers can be removed to access the plumbing (eliminating that dank, dark, hard-to-reach hole found in most kitchens). Also, under the counter beside the sink is a tall, narrow pull-out on which sits an antique ivory and red tin box from my grandfather’s house that holds dishwasher detergent, and above that, a nifty trio of towel racks on which to hang dish towels and washed recycled plastic bags. Above the drawers beneath the counter are wooden cutting boards that can be pulled out as needed. There are also vertical pull-out cupboards above and beside the refrigerator. Above the sink and in front of the south-facing window that looks out on the bird feeders and the spacious backyard is a light operated by pulling on a frosted glass knob at the end of a chain, so easy to reach just where it is needed.
I started writing the reflection on my kitchen ten days ago. It was the day after I’d had an echo-stress test on a treadmill and learned there is an abnormality in the walls of the left ventricle of my heart. Thus, I set about to contemplate my mortality. Yesterday, the day before my birthday, I underwent a nervously anticipated heart catheterization. I dreaded not only the procedure (although that was worrisome, too) but what it might reveal. I hoped for a small blockage that could easily be removed, enabling me to immediately run up hills like a twenty-year-old without gasping to catch my breath. But I feared that my arteries could be a complete mess and that I’d need a quadruple by-pass or worse. Neither of those scenarios unfolded. Instead, some problems will be treated with medicine, exercise, and diet, requiring some work on my part but no surgical intervention. I am grateful.
Today is my birthday. It is hard to believe I have completed seventy-seven years. I look back at childhood, adolescence, the college and young adult years, then marriage (later than most), two children, several careers, widowhood, adventures as a single person, and a second joyful, unexpected late-life marriage. Today would also have been my dear Ed’s 95th birthday and our 44th wedding anniversary. He died just days after our 30th.
Last week I happened upon a Mary Oliver poem embedded in a beautiful ceramic bench on the grounds of the Harwood Art School in Albuquerque. It was not the first time I’d read this poem, but its closing lines, especially, spoke to me and seemed appropriate for this birthday morning when I am glad to have my body back. Thank you, Mary Oliver, and all the artists, holy ones, and mystics who help us live more fully.
We lost our dear Joanna this week, the first of our little group called Sisters of Sorrow and Hope. We are alumni of the first cancer caregivers writing group founded in 2005 at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center by psychologist and cancer survivor Anjanette Cureton and artist, writer and cancer survivor Eleanor Schick. That group continues to this day as Family and Friends Journaling Together .
Members of that first group formed a tight bond. We cried and laughed and shared our deepest secrets, fears, and hopes. We lost husbands, lovers, parents, and friends. We encountered depths of feelings we had avoided confronting, and we supported each other.
Eventually some of us moved on (after those we cared for died). We no longer needed support to survive. New people joined the group, but they did not know all we’d shared with each other. It was time to make room for the new people with their fresh pain. But we missed each other. So, after a year or two, we informally connected again – no longer meeting weekly, but getting together every two or three months. We realized how deep our friendship was and how precious the bonds that united us. We were sisters who shared our sorrows and our hopes.
We met in each other’s homes and shared food and wine along with our stories and writing. We continued the structure established by Anjie and Eleanor, who sometimes joined us. Check-in, meditation, writing, and then reading or sharing our writing. We scheduled our first Zoom meeting for early January 2021. Then news came from Joanna that a recent CAT scan had revealed metastasized cancer and she did not have long to live. Her time was, indeed, short. She died yesterday morning, leaving her beloved dog Ziggy to her friend/sister-in -sorrow-and-hope/dog-walking companion, Melissa.
Joanna was not only our sister in sorrow and hope; she was a renowned cellist who shared her talent generously, playing in benefit concerts, the local Sunday Chatter group, and at the university’s cancer center. She was also a devoted care-giver. Announcing her final professional performance at Chatter in 2017, the Chatter group shared a three-part video of the young Joanna de Keyser many years before, playing in a Master Class with Pablo Casals.
This morning I tearfully listened to that beautiful recording of Dvorak’s music, pondering the mysteries of life and death and our grief at our loss of Joanna’s talent, generosity, and friendship. What happens to all our talents and all our accomplishments when we die? Other than some bits remaining in memories legacies they are gone. My thought is: be generous, give of ourselves now, for our gifts are ours for only a short time.
Blessings on you, dear Joanna. May you be making music with Pablo Casals and the angels this morning. Your spirit is with us.
Note: I just did a Google search for Joanna de Keyser. There are several recordings and stories about her amazing career, including a review of a recital at Carnegie Hall in New York; but to us she was mainly our cherished sister in sorrow and hope.
My husband and I set off on our usual 3.5 mile walk along the North Valley ditch banks.At first I was busy talking with him, since we had been working separately all day and had lots to catch up on. By the time we got to our turn-around spot overlooking the Candelaria Fields toward the Rio Grand Bosque with the volcanos beyond, I had been quiet for quite a long time.
I never tire of the view from there, where we often see cranes, geese, small birds, and sometimes coyotes or hot air balloons. It is a special, perhaps even sacred place. The ditch points straight to Vulcan, the largest volcano. I wonder for how many centuries ditches, paths, or lines of some kind have pointed from this spot to the volcano. What had this land looked like 400 and 500 years ago, before the first Spanish came?
I took some deep breaths. It had been a busy, difficult day. I raised my arms and clasped my hands over my head while focusing on Vulcan. From the corners of my eyes I saw my open hands as they rose, framing the volcano. “Maybe now we are in better hands.” I was thinking of yesterday’s inauguration. Maybe I will breathe easier. Unbidden, the song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” came to me, and I clapped and sang as we turned toward home.
At the Alameda Drain, I let my husband hurry ahead. I walked to the edge of the deep ditch, peered down, and was happy to see there was still a border of ice along the edge at its bottom. I spent a long time looking at the assorted trash in the ditch, thinking of the muskrat I’d seen swimming and disappearing into a hole in the bank last summer. There was no water now.
The sky was patchy with dark clouds, white clouds, and bits of blue. The elm tree behind me was already showing signs of swelling buds. Birds flitted in the trees across the street. The mourning doves called. Snow covered the distant mountains. I studied the many grasses and small shrubs that lined the ditch. I was happy and at peace. Suddenly, right in front of me, I noticed two long narrow leaves that formed the unmistakable shape of a cross. I would have taken a photo, but I’d sent my phone home with my husband. I recited “Our Father” more than once. The world was so beautiful.
As I walked a few steps toward home, a bright blue speck in the dirt caught my eye. I thought of the Virgin Mary’s cloak. I bent down to pick it up. It was a little piece of glass. What it had come from and how it had gotten there; the only piece of blue anywhere? I recited a “Hail Mary,” and recalled some of some of the many images I had seen of Mary while walking caminos in France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Then, I spied something purple. It was a tiny fragment of brown glass (likely from a beer bottle) that had oxidized to form a purple sheen. This, too, seemed special. A piece of trash thoughtlessly discarded along the path had become something beautiful.
I continued walking, warmed by the sun, which had broken through the clouds. I looked at the yellow fruit of the nightshade that also lined the ditch, and I picked a small stem. At the corner where the ditch meets the street, I noted a new fence and gate of golden wood, topped with a wrought-iron sun with wavy rays. As I turned onto our street, South Peak was centered at the its end, the sun hitting its top. In my mind’s eye I was transported to that also sacred place I have visited at least twice after a long hard climb. I don’t know whether I’ll get there again; not now in ice and snow for sure. As the warmth of home enveloped me, I was grateful for my pilgrim walk. The frustrations and worries of the day had faded away and I looked forward to a peaceful night.
For several years I had been told I had the beginnings of cataracts forming in my eyes, but that it was much too soon to do anything about them. In recent months, however, I noticed I was having more and more difficulty reading on my phone, and distinguishing numbers on cards when playing an online solitaire game. I also seemed to be tripping on curbs, rocks, and roots more often.
For most of my life I have had very sharp vision, but I began to use off-the-shelf reading glasses with fairly low magnification sometime in my late forties or early fifties. When I worked in a school library, I upgraded to graduated lenses to avoid constantly taking glasses on and off while switching between reading call numbers on spine labels, reading aloud to children, and looking at them.
However, in recent months I began to feel that even my prescription glasses were not working as well as they should. To my great surprise at my eye exam in early October, which I scheduled despite wishing to avoid unnecessary appointments during the COVID pandemic, the optometrist suggested it was now time to do something about the cataracts.
It took two months to get an appointment with the ophthalmologist, whom I saw for perhaps five minutes on December 11. I had done some reading ahead of time and decided that although I noticed my loss of visual acuity most while reading, I’d opt for the distance intraocular lens implant. Surgery was surprisingly quickly scheduled to take place during the December holidays.
Although I spent only brief minutes with the surgeon, the interview with the surgery scheduler and the waiting time took close to an hour. I was given an appointment for December 23 for additional eye measurements, filled out additional questionnaires online, and answered additional (and many of the same questions) via telephone. Because of Covid, my husband was not allowed to accompany me to any of the appointments, although he was required to be available to drive me. Because the waiting rooms were closed, he waited outside in the car.
I was understandably nervous on the morning of surgery, and even more so when I awoke to find snow on the ground. We arrived early and were admitted to the building after facing more questions and a temperature check. We were assigned to positions marked six-feet apart in the hallway, where we waited for at least half-an-hour, perhaps because we were a bit early.
We joked with another couple in line ahead of us. When we were admonished to stay close to the wall because people would be passing down the center of the hall, I felt like I was back in elementary school. “Line up neatly, children!”
When we were finally invited into the intake office, we again had our temperatures taken. I handed over my insurance card once more, and more paperwork I’d been asked to complete. I was allowed to wear my wedding ring, but turned my scarf, wristwatch, folder with instructions, and my phone over to my husband. He departed and I sat in the nearly empty waiting area, where an old Perry Mason show played on the TV (fortunately quietly and with captions). A Santa Claus wearing a mask decorated one wall. The woman who had been in line ahead of me and a man I hadn’t seen before were both called into the next area ahead of me. I probably waited another half an hour to 40 minutes in this empty Twilight Zone. A monitor listed perhaps ten patients, identified by numbers, showing which were in recovery, which in the operating room, which in pre-op, and which were waiting. For a long time there was only one waiting: Patient G3. That was me!
Finally, I was called and guided into the pre-op location, where I was told to lie down on a gurney. I hesitated to put my shoes on the clean white blankets but did as I was told. I must say that all the people who came to administer various procedures were warm, friendly and caring. Since we were all masked, and since I cannot hear well if I can’t see, they were very patient with me, repeating themselves until I could understand them. They put a needle for an IV on the back of my hand and slapped an eye patch over my left eye, after verifying more than once my name and which eye would be operated on. They put various drops in my right eye, one of which stung (they warmed me!) and told me keep my eyes closed. A sticker was pasted on my forehead over the right eye — the one to be operated on. Various sticky things were stuck onto my chest and waist (I’d been told to wear a shirt that buttoned — not my usual winter attire), then I had to push myself up to the top of the bed, which got my clothes a bit out of arrangement and left me with what felt like a log under my back. The helpful attendant adjusted the bed to be more comfortable and at my request reached under my shirt and pulled the slipped bra strap back into place. A cap covered up my hair, the wisps were swept out of my eyes, and then I was swaddled tightly in the blankets, arms at my side. I’d been a bit fearful about getting cold, but I was not.
I was, by now, completely immobilized, swaddled tightly, a patch covering one eye, and required to keep the other eye closed. I was unable to see, move or hear much while the bed was pumped up to a higher level and I was wheeled on a bumpy ride to the operating room (so they told me). Suddenly I sensed bright lights overhead and managed to peek a bit. The doctor came, made sure I was me, put his hand on my arm, which was reassuring, and again made sure it was my right eye needing attention. I felt cold running through my hand from the I-V needle and must have lost consciousness shortly after. Someone mentioned pulling on my eyelashes, and I could feel that. Then I heard, saw and felt nothing else, except two things, which I may have dreamed. I had been imagining what it would feel like to have something cutting through my eye, (thinking of that Bunuel/Dali movie) Un Chien Andalou (careful, this is really gross!). I had really hoped to see what was going on. At one point during the procedure, I thought I saw broken brownish pieces like glass shattering in my eye, and shortly after I felt something cold slide over or into my eye.
The next thing I knew, a nurse was introducing herself, my right hearing aid (which had been removed) was returned to me, along with the dark glasses I’d purchased. These things were hanging in the black glasses pouch, along with my sweater, on a hook at the foot of the bed. I was helped into a wheelchair, handed the glasses pouch, and wheeled out to the door where I was happy to see my husband waiting beside the car. Instructions for post-op and a card signed by all the people who had been part of the whole process were in the pouch.
I think I was still sedated and a bit wobbly, because I don’t remember much of the ride home — for a change I didn’t tell my husband where or how to drive. I took his arm for the walk from the garage to the house. Looking through my right eye was like looking through heavy fog. We had breakfast, as I hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink for twelve or more hours.
I checked my email, then lay down in bed to read, where I promptly fell asleep for more than an hour. (I hadn’t slept much the night before). I put in the required eyedrops, and the eye felt O.K., maybe just a little scratchy. I was able to attend a Zoom meeting of the photography club that evening.
The next day my husband drove me again for the 24-hour check-up. My vision was still hazy but continued to slowly improve. I was told my vision had improved already and would improve still more. I was a little worried about when and if that would happen. Now, five days since the surgery, I can see better with my right eye than with my left. The light is brighter. I have no discomfort whatsoever. Although the lens is for distance, I can even see to read my computer screen without glasses, especially if I cover the left eye.
It feels like a miracle. I think how for centuries getting old often meant losing one’s sight. The technology has changed amazingly quickly. I have been walking, birdwatching (adjusting my binocular lens for my “new” eye), taking pictures, going about my usual activities, and even cooking dinner and a cheesecake for my husband’s New Year’s Eve birthday.
I was very nervous before the surgery, having had little previous experience with any kind of surgery, but now I’m hoping that even though the left eye is not too bad, I will be able to have it done, too.
I’m writing this because I thought others who may be going through cataract surgery, or who are considering it, would find reading about my experience helpful and interesting.
I did some reading. There is lots of information available on cataract surgery, its history and recent, rapid, and ever-continuing developments. I am amazed and pleased that something is right these days, although I cringe to read that older, less successful methods of surgical treatments for cataracts are still being practiced in much of the world.
Here is a link to one reliable, if somewhat technical overview:
We didn’t have an inkling as we snorkeled in the Galapagos, explored Quito and the Amazon, and birded in the Ecuadoran cloud forests in January and February that life as we knew it was about to come to a screeching halt.
I grieved and am still grieving, although we are among the fortunate. Hardest for me was missing Rumi’s babyhood. I saw his birth in November, visited him in December and January, and then there was nothing but Facetime and Zoom until July. We did risk seeing the family in September and November, but by his first birthday Rumi didn’t quite know who we were.
It was in the midst of the annual gathering of American Pilgrims on the Camino at Lake Tahoe in mid-March, that knowledge of the seriousness of the pandemic arrived in conjunction with a series of snowstorms. We abandoned plans to visit San Francisco, came home, and, for the most part, have stayed here.
We used our time productively, editing Kent’s stories and reflections and Pam’s letters written during their years sailing on Jacana and Coot. We hope to publish We Ran Away to Sea in some form by early spring: so, watch the best-seller lists. We also organized and indexed Pam’s recipes, with an introduction by Kent and brief notes on people associated with the recipes. We printed twenty spiral-bound copies of Coot Cook with Pam’s picture on the cover (sure to be a collector’s item).
In late September, as I watched the interest rates fall in my savings accounts, I got the bright idea that we could help our son Jesse, who was losing the place he’d lived in for fifteen years, by investing in a house that he could rent from us. So, we are now landlords in the midst of renovating a small older (1910’s, 20’s or 30’s? – we’ve not been able to verify its age, especially with libraries closed) house on a quiet street in walking distance of everything in downtown Albuquerque. The house appealed to us not only for its location, but because it retained the original layout, woodwork, hardwood floors, glassed-in front and back porches, lots of windows (old single-paned double-hung), a fireplace, and a small, bare, but private back-yard. The broken sewer line was replaced yesterday, an upgraded electrical system was finished today, and Jesse has moved in, although there is still much to do.
All of this has taken place, of course, during the never-ending election, which is still keeping us on edge, and as the surge in Coronavirus has further curtailed our lives and complicated shopping (long lines and shortages).
The loss in April of my dear friend Anne Sensenig, my former library assistant, talented singer, writer, activist and true friend to many has left a huge hole in my life. Fortunately, we’ve kept in touch with her husband Daniel, who has continued the amazing Caringbridge reflections she started.
We have treasured the few get-togethers we have managed to have with family and friends, including some lovely small, socially distanced dinners in our patio during the summer. It is hard to believe that a year ago I’d never heard of Zoom.
The world is still beautiful, although we may be losing that, too. Our New Mexico sky is bright blue, but the weather report says the air quality is poor. We’ve been participating in a discussion of All We Can Save, a powerful collection of essays on climate change. In 2021 I am determined to bring my garden back to life. This year, after a spring frost, we lost all of our fruit except a few pomegranates. We also lost our bees and our flock of hens (now only four) was ravaged by hungry coyotes. I am still grieving for myself, those I love, and for our country and our planet. It seems we have made such a mess of things.
Heather Cox Richardson, the Harvard political historian, whose column I follow daily (along with that of Franciscan Richard Rohr) was asked whether those who lived through the Great Depression realized how dire their circumstances were, and she thought not — not until looking back. I feel circumstances are dire right now, but I recall how my parents faced the Depression, World War II, and serious health issues (tuberculosis and cancer), and yet not only survived, but led productive lives into old age. At young ages they also survived the 1918 flu epidemic! They told us stories about the hard times with a sense of pride. We, too, may one day have stories to tell about 2020.
With this closing poem we wish you safe holidays, hope for a better new year, blessings on your journey, and comfort in the awareness that we are not alone, for those who have traveled before us have also faced challenges and survived.
The Blessing for Those Who Have Far to Travel begins:
If you could see the journey whole, you might never undertake it,
might never dare the first step that propels you from the place you have known toward the place you know not.
And a similar poem ends:
But step out and you will know what the wise who traveled this path before you knew: the treasure in this map is buried not at journey’s end …. but in the journey itself, And in those who travel with you.
Christmas blessings on your journey from Linnea and Kent
I’m not a patient person. When something doesn’t work, I push buttons rather than thinking things through. I’m not good at waiting for anything or anybody. So, now I’m caught in several “in-between” times of waiting. In the midst of COVID-19 I am waiting for life to return to “normal” again, although it probably never will. And in the midst of COVID comes another wait for the outcome of the November 2020 election. I was horrified and disappointed by the inconclusive first night of the returns. I had been anticipating a Democratic sweep, a repudiation of Trump and his policies. That was not to be, and I am still weeping.
Then yesterday, the morning after election day following a restless night, I got out of bed to discover a sharp pain in my left foot. Thinking it would soon go away, I didn’t pay much attention, but after an attempt at an afternoon walk in my hiking boots, which I thought might be good for this mysterious infliction, the foot hurt even worse. So, this morning I called my podiatrist’s office, waited while someone searched for my records, gave them information that I was sure they must already have, and waited some more, until finally someone was found to see me later this afternoon. I was also waiting to make a third visit to my audiologist’s office, hoping to get the new tubes to my ear molds right after two previous visits had failed to correct the problem. We are also waiting for the real estate closing on a small rental house, which turned out to have some serious problems (a woefully in adequate, below code electrical system; and a broken sewer pipe, the repair of which will require cutting into the street). We did get a break from the seller, but we are still waiting for the official closing.
As I drove to the audiologist this morning, I was wheedled out of my impatience by the sight of the golden cottonwoods and surrounding fields along Rio Grande Boulevard, probably the loveliest street in Albuquerque, over which flew flock after flock of wild ducks. I drove slowly (speed limit is 25) through this little bit of country, a refuge in the midst of urban sprawl, enjoying the variety in styles of housing, ranging from McMansions to simple houses whose original owners once farmed the surrounding fields, to big old estates and horse properties, some which I admired and some which I found tacky, but that was O.K. Room for all, I say. The sun was shining, and the mountains were blue in the distance. I spied a couple seated on a bench in their sunny yard, enjoying the fine autumn weather and looking at Christmas lights they must have just set up.
I thought how good life is, and how beautiful our world. I had read a snatch of something by George Will, saying politics should be at the margins of our lives, not the center, and I thought how this morning’s sunshine on the fields, the mountains, the birds, and the everyday lives of my neighbors is what is real and important. This is the life that goes on, no matter who wins the election.
Then I thought about my foot. I am a walker. If I can’t walk, then what? I thought of Edie Littlefield Sundby, the Mission Walker, who walked the length of California and then the length of Baja, California while battling cancer. Her philosophy was that as long as she could walk, she wasn’t dead. I thought about people who have ordinary accidents, illnesses, and pregnancies and who need medical attention during these times when the resources of our health system and its workers are strained to the utmost. Would I be one of them? Life, death, and love are more important than politics.
Friends have recently lost their spouses. Yesterday I learned of the death of one of my high school classmates who was also the spouse of a classmate. On Election Day I learned he had cancer and was home on hospice care. Then the next day the message came, “He is now with the angels.” We had recently reconnected with this couple, who found each other in their seventies after the deaths of their previous spouses. Like Kent and me, they were enjoying wonderful and unexpected happiness late in life. It was a joy to see their delight in each other, and I hoped we would see them regularly in their trips back and forth across the country and our trips to the Midwest. Now suddenly, within a day of my learning of his illness, he was gone.
As I drove along glorious Rio Grande Boulevard, hoping to get my hearing aid problems straightened out and some answers about the pain in my foot later today, I thought about my friends, and realized that they, my physical well-being, the beauty of the world in its burst of exuberance in face of the death of autumn, are the things that are real, important, and worth treasuring and appreciating. Despite my sadness and impatience, those are the things that matter. As I heard Bishop Curry say this morning, we must love one another and reach out to those who are different and with whom we disagree, not every day, just today.
Postscript: The hearing-aid problems appear to be solved. The podiatrist, after consulting x-rays and looking at my foot, said there was no sign of a fracture (Kent had joked it may have been a stress fracture, caused by my stress over the election), and that it was a matter of an over-stretched band. The cure is rest, ice, and a wrapping contraption to stabilize the foot. I go back in four weeks to see how I’m doing. Let’s hope I will soon be walking (not hobbling), carefully, at first, and that the election, too, will be settled before the first week in December. I’ll try to be patient.
Next morning: The foot still hurts, Biden is gaining in the counts of mail-in ballots, and I am thinking how all of life is really a series of “in-betweens,” some more difficult to weather than others.
Inspired by reading Dianne Homan’s Walk Your Own Camino and a recent hike close to home.
The Physical Camino
September 24, 2020
Yesterday Kent and I took a walk in the Sandia Mountains on a trail I always thought of as moderate, although it goes steadily up for a couple of miles, and the switchbacks start to seem endless before the trail reaches a lovely flat spot where we once camped. From this place, where a large long-fallen log provides a place to sit, one can choose to continue up on the South Crest Trail which winds around and if followed far enough will lead over 20 miles to the north end of the mountains; or one can take, a bit to the right, the CCC trail, an unmarked, unmaintained (although none of these trails seem to have had any maintenance in the 20 years I’ve been walking them) trail that is much shorter than the Crest Trail, but heads straight up the mountain, providing a real test of stamina and, especially on the way down, a challenge to the knees. A third choice, the Upper Faulty Trail goes right and north, passes through some lovely stands of Ponderosas and makes fairly gentle ups and downs across some small arroyos and through pleasant open woods, eventually intersecting with the Lower Faulty Trail, which can be taken farther north or back to the Lower Crest Trail, meeting it below the switchbacks, a quarter-mile or so above the travertine falls. There are a couple of steep descents on the Lower Faulty, the worst one on loose scree that descends precipitously to the junction with the Crest Trail. That was the route we chose, and it was at that last descent that I panicked.
I was already very hot and tired and my knees, feet and even my hip joints were beginning to hurt. I was terrified of slipping because there was nothing to stop a long slide to the bottom, so I braced myself with my poles, testing them each time I planted them, hoping they would not slip, and that my feet would not slip when I placed each foot carefully in what I hoped was the next safe spot. I was so hot on the sunny slope that my eyes began to burn from the salty sweat that ran into them. My shirt and shorts were also damp. Why had I not brought my bandana, that could have doubled as a face mask and kept the sweat out of my eyes, or at least wiped it from my face? The face mask hung uselessly from my wrist, as there were no other people on the trail, and I was so hot. My lips were dry, but happily I found a chap-stick in my waist pack. My water was almost gone. When I finally reached the end of the descent I was shaking and lightheaded, so we paused for a while in the shade. We had another mile or so to go to the parking lot. The trail was rough with irregular rocks, requiring careful attention to the placement of each step. At the travertine falls there is a short-cut with another steep descent in full sun – this one not so slippery, and not so long, but I was terrified going down, all the same.
By the time I reached the shady rock at the bottom where Kent waited for me, I felt terrible. Shaky and hot, I took off the hat that was stuck to my damp head. My hair was wet and stiff with salt. I panted, felt lightheaded, and suddenly nauseous. We had only a tiny bit of water left. I drank most of it and wanted more. We sat there for a very long time, watching the birds (Red-breasted Nuthatches, Stellar’s Jays, a Townsend’s Solitaire) flitting through the trees and visiting the slight the trickle of water in one small section of the dry travertine. A gorgeous Abert’s squirrel, his light tail waving and his black ears erect, scampered up the rough stone. I leaned forward and rested my head on my hands on my poles, wondering how I’d gotten so out-of-shape and so old that this trail was so hard. After what seemed like a long time, I started to feel better, took deep breaths, stood up and slowly continued the rest of the way to the parking lot without feeling worse. There was an unopened bottle of water in the car, and although it was as warm as hot tea, I gulped down half of the bottle. When we got home, Kent made a pitcher of lemonade and I downed 3 huge glasses. I looked up my symptoms on the internet and read about heat exhaustion caused by dehydration and overheating during strenuous exercise. Next time, I will take extra water, some electrolyte tablets, and my bandana. According to my phone we walked just over 6 miles in about 5 hours, although the trail guide gives the distance as closer to 4.5 miles.
I thought about moments on the Camino, when I faced similar challenges and moments of despair. The most recent Camino from Arles to Toulouse just one year ago had many steep ups and downs, often very rocky. Steep descents in loose rock are my least favorite parts of any walk, and there were many on this route. I remember standing at the top of a hill, seeing the village we were heading for a heart-sinking distance below, and wondering how I would ever manage to get down. My despair was deepened by the fact that the last sign had said it was only 4 km to the village, leading me to think the day’s journey would soon be over. I was not expecting two km of precipitous descent.
During these times of physical trial on the Camino and on other walks, I often wonder why I am doing this. Perhaps because it feels so good when I stop? But I think there are other reasons. I am testing myself and my endurance, and I’m putting myself in the position of many walkers who are walking now and who have walked in the past who have had no choice, whose way Is hard, life-threatening and challenging. I remember walking through endless mud on my first Camino, ten years ago, thinking I was paying for my sins. If our Caminos were just “walks in the park” we would have no stories to tell, and no challenges to test ourselves and make us strong. We experience humility and awareness of our human frailty, which I hope brings us closer to all life and to God.
I am up early this morning, enjoying delightfully cool hours that should be quiet, but are not. For some reason the sound of traffic is loud, not only from I-40 half-a-mile away, but also from the surrounding streets. I water the potted plants in the patio, which are blooming profusely, thriving on Miracle Gro. I fill the fountain, eye the bird feeders (which also need refreshing) and wander out to the three tomato and half-a-dozen basil plants in the bigger yard. I water them, too, and when I bend down to feel the reddest tomato, it slips off the vine and into my hand. It is ready.
I return to the kitchen and touch the overly large peaches in their protective carton. The house is warmer inside than out, and the peaches (not from the garden) are softening. They must be eaten. No hardship in that, although I was hoping to save some for the family visit in a few days.
Our orchard’s peaches, along with the apples, plums, pears, and many of the cherries, froze this spring when unusual warmth was followed by sudden cold, dashing our hopes, just as the sudden onslaught of the Coronavirus rearranged our lives.
The family comes in four more days. What should be a purely joyous time is filled with uncertainty. All visitors from out-of-state are required to be quarantined for fourteen days. What does this mean for us? Both families have been careful for months now. We will welcome them into our “bubble.” I’m longing to hold Zia on my lap and read him stories and hold Rumi in my arms again while he is still a baby. We will welcome and embrace our loved ones without social distancing, come what may.
Three weeks later: August 1, 2020
The family has come and gone. They filled the house with youth, chaos, love, and laughter for ten days. The cruel spring had turned into an even crueler summer, aside from a brief flicker of hope in early June. We hold on to the possibility of meeting again, somewhere between here and San Francisco for Christmas, but that time seems so far away. Baby Rumi will have had his first birthday, and I will have missed most of his delightful babyhood. We’ve folded up the inflatable swimming pool, put the box of wooden blocks back in the closet, and piled the books into a stack. The house is quieter and neater now. I wish it weren’t.
Life seems to be standing still, but it’s not. It is divided into before and after, like the times before and after Ed’s cancer diagnosis, when our lives and our perspectives changed in an instant. Then, as now, there were moments when we almost forgot, when we tricked ourselves into thinking the diagnosis wasn’t real and life continued much as it always had. Tucked away now, in our cozy home and expansive garden, we sometimes forget that the world outside is no longer the same.
We met our lawyer this week, to sign amendments to our wills. I changed out of my shorts and t-shirt, making an effort to be presentable and somewhat business-like. I even put on a bit of lipstick, forgetting it would be invisible behind my mask. Maybe eye make-up will be the next big thing? But will anyone even see our eyes? Will we ever get dressed up again for anything? We met in the lobby; our lawyer dressed as though for a comfortable Saturday at home.
August has arrived, a month that marks the final weeks of summer and the gradual transition into fall. What will fall be like this year with no State Fair, no Balloon Fiesta, and almost certainly no Halloween? I am mourning the end of life as we have known it, uncertain whether it will ever come back; and if it does, how will it have changed? It came back after the 1918 flu and roared into the 1920s. It came back after the plagues in the middle ages and sparked the Renaissance. But it is hard to remain hopeful when everything appears to be spiraling downward, one disaster after another: politics, climate, and angry divisions among people who should be helping one another, not squabbling. But, “hope is the thing with feathers.”
I escape, reading Kent’s life on boats; in my imagination still inhabiting that good-old-world, which in retrospect resembles a paradise lost that we did not appreciate when we had it; and that shocked us with its unexpected demise. We are editing the stories and letters from the years when Kent and Pam “ran away to sea,” during a previous time of crisis in our country and in their lives. We might ask if there has ever been a time that was not one of crisis. We have so much to do, and like Alexander Hamilton we are running out of time. Who will tell our story? We write as fast as we can, but the garden beckons. It, too, constantly changes and needs loving care.
I am thankful for the cool nights and early mornings of New Mexico. Should I snuggle under the covers for a bit longer, or get up and enjoy the coolness, the flowers, the birds, and a tomato that has ripened over night? Perhaps a bit of both? Quo vadis?
As I stepped into the patio this. morning, flocks of house finches and other small birds who had gathered at the new pigeon-proof bird feeder, scattered into the sky like flung confetti. I felt a bit like St. Francis, with his bird companions.
Recently thoughts of “companions on the way,” upon which I reflected in an email sent from my Spanish Camino in 2010, have returned during this time of social isolation.
While I sat in the sun beside the cathedral in Santiago, “along came a French couple I´d met several times during the walk. We finally exchanged names and emails. I had been reflecting on the importance of companions on the pilgrimage and on the road of life. How unexpected they sometimes are, and how important. I thought about how no one goes with us all the way. Some remain with us longer and become dearer, while others are with us for a short time, but may be no less dear and important in their own ways.”
Some companions are with us for most of our lives. Some we would not have not chosen but seem to have been chosen for us. There are some whose names we recall frequently and some whose names we have forgotten. Some we mourn for having left us too soon, and some we will leave too soon.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Where I am going, you cannot follow,” which is what happens when our loved ones leave us. He also said, “My peace I give to you,” and “I will be with you always.” But the disciples were left alone, nevertheless.
Each of us must ultimately walk alone. Our companions on the way may sometimes be thorns-in-our sides and sometimes treasures. Some are soul-mates, and others are people with whom we just happen to be thrown together.
Eleanor from our cancer care-givers writing group wrote to me near the beginning of my 2010 Camino, that the entire group sent me energy and prayers during the silent meditation before writing. I had forgotten this until I re-read those emails. Perhaps it was their energy that kept me going during those first difficult days? Most of the members of this group are still part of my life. We gather every so often to talk and write. We have moved beyond the challenges that faced us as caregivers and we now live new lives and face new challenges.
I have three friends from high school – who were not my closest friends from those days – with whom I regularly keep in touch. Three of us, including me, have lost spouses. I treasure the continued presence of these companions from my youth, even though I have been blessed with a new husband with whom to share these late-life years.
Today is the birthday of my two children, born four years apart. Their father Ed died when they were in their early twenties. They remain my companions in joy and grief as I share in their achievements and their sorrows.
Anne, my amazing library assistant, became one of my closest friends. After a more than year-long struggle with cancer, that she chronicled with grace and insight through her CaringBridge account, she died suddenly at the end of April this year.
It has been hard to write about her. I’ve tried to write about objects that remind me of her, like a beautiful bar of soap with the image of a bee with translucent wings pressed into it. It is quite a marvelous construction. I can hear her exclaiming over its beauty and ingenuity. She gave this beautiful object to me, her friend, and now it sits beside my sink, used often during this time of frequent hand-washing, reminding me every day of her friendship and her love of life and beauty.
Oddly, it is often when I am walking that seemingly unconscious triggers call forth memories of friends and family, as vividly as the videos and pictures that also bring those long-gone to life. They are indeed with me always.
I am reminded of special kindnesses, even fleeting ones, often from strangers. Sometimes a smile, a touch, a helping hand, or a sympathetic ear means so much. On the other hand, a curt dismissal, an insult, or a refusal to help diminishes me.
It is easy to take out our frustrations on others, to blame to criticize, and to consider ourselves superior. But that is not the way to promote harmony in this world that is already so full of hostility and hurt and so much in need of healing. Anger begets anger, love, love. So, let’s be thankful for our companions on the way, and try to respond both to those who hurt us and those who treat us with kindness, with love.
The birds, too, are our companions, even the greedy doves we try to keep from devouring the food set out for the smaller ones. The pigeon-proof feeder allows the doves to scavenge the seeds spilled on the ground. We no longer shout and wave our arms, scaring off the little birds as well as the doves. All of our lives are happier now.
After last night’s brisk wind, the morning was fresh and cool as we walked along the ditch banks. There is often a certain progression in my thoughts as I walk, not guided by me, but seemingly birthed from the motion of my legs, the swing of my arms, the pounding of my feet, and the quickness of my breath.
This morning, thoughts overflowed. I thought of Philip Young, the gifted English literature professor from whom I took a class on Hawthorne and Melville long ago at Penn State. One day he said, “I am rich!” referring to his fertile mind. “I give you a footnote. Others would write an article, but I have so many ideas, I can give them away in footnotes.” I was feeling rich myself in those days, newly pregnant with my first child, but I had a hard time coming up with an original and compelling idea for my final paper. Because I was a librarian, I had done endless research. What could I say about one of these authors that had not already been said? At last, pre-occupied and immersed in creativity, I had one small idea in response to Hawthorne’s short story, “The Artist of the Beautiful,” a story about the artist’s creation of a mechanical butterfly (which is smashed by the infant of the woman he loves) and the essence of creativity. I no longer remember what my small idea was, (probably something about babies, butterflies, and nature versus human invention), but it was enough to satisfy Professor Young
So, this morning, I, too, was rich. First, as we walked, I shared ideas with Kent about the memoirs of his life on boats, which I am editing. Then I practiced, as I often do when walking, reciting (1) “The Lord is my Shepherd,” (2) “The Road not Taken,” and finally, (3) “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
At the turn-around point, looking over the green fields and t riverside trees to the volcano Vulcan, which along with several others marks the skyline west of Albuquerque, I did my usual standing yoga poses and stretches. It was while heading back, after half-an-hour of motion that, as usual, my thoughts began overflowing. This is why I think walking is the cure for everything.
I thought about a friend who had gone back to the Catholic Church from the Episcopal church. I wanted to ask her more about why, and I wondered what differences between the two might matter to me. “Mystery,” maybe, and “Authority.” The priest who presided at the Aquinas Newman Center on the Sunday following the dismissal of the Dominicans, had proclaimed, “Church was made for man, not man for the church.” I despised those words and the top-down practices they represented. I began weeping a few minutes into the service, left when it was over, and never went back.
Then I thought about the Compline (late night) service I’d attended via Zoom twice in the past week, and how comforting it was, like being tucked in by my mother and my aunts when I was a young child. “Now I lay me down to sleep…” and “Good-night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” I wondered, did I do this for my children – tuck them in with prayers and give them a sense of security? The words of the Compline service were comforting and soothing in this time of sadness, upheaval and uncertainty. “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end,” the service began. And later:
Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. For you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth. Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of your eye. Hide us under the shadow of your wings. — The Book of Common Prayer
I think I slept more soundly last night that I had in a long time, like a young chick sheltered under its mother’s wings. The words and prayers, in the lovely language of The Book of Common Prayer resonated with me. One of my favorite nighttime prayers, which we didn’t say last night, is from The New Zealand Book of Common Prayer:
Lord, It is night.
The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be.
The night is dark. Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives rest in you.
The night is quiet. Let the quietness of your peace enfold us, all dear to us, and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities.
In your name we pray. Amen.
I thought of Shakespeare’s “Sleep, gentle sleep, that knits up the raveled sleeve of care.”
Ha! I misremembered, conflating two different sayings, “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,” from MacBeth, and “O sleep, O gentle sleep, Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee. That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down, and steep my senses in forgetfulness?” Henry IV, Part 2.
And, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Matthew 6:34
Now, “Morning has broken, like the first morning.” Eleanor Farjeon
My ideas have bubbled over. I have a day’s work ahead of me, which I will tackle with energy gained from my walk and strength from my good night’s sleep. When the day is over, I will no longer have “miles to go before I sleep.” Night will one day come to each of us.