Birthday Reflections: May 29, 2020

Birthday lunch in the sunny patio.

It’ s my birthday morning.  Seventy-six years, twenty years into the 21st Century, and more than two months into the coronavirus lockdown.  Grandson Zia just turned three, and when he is my age, it will be 2093.  I won’t be here for sure, and most likely his parents won’t be either.

I haven’t been able to write during this pandemic.  The days and weeks seem to slip one past another with no clear boundaries.  Every two weeks we have irrigation water.  The cleaning ladies come on the weeks we don’t water, and the trash must go out every Wednesday evening.  St. Michael and All Angels has morning prayer via Facebook or Zoom at eight on Monday through Friday, and Sunday service each week at nine.  We have not met in person since early March.

A large multicolored cat just walked along the top of the wall under the grape arbor and crept down into the Catmint around the fountain.  What is it doing here?  Lured perhaps by the birds, the lizards and the water?  It has vanished as stealthily and silently as it came.  I’ve not seen this cat before, or at least not for a very long time.  How often does it visit us without our knowledge?

Ten years ago today I celebrated my birthday by inviting friends; some for breakfast and others for dinner, as they couldn’t all come at the same time.  I cooked early in the morning and again in the afternoon with some quiet time in between.  It was one of my favorite birthdays.  It was good to create my own celebration and do things for my friends rather than have them do something for me, as I knew no one else would plan anything.  I had returned from the first half of my first Camino from Le-Puy-en-Velay, France to Pamplona, Spain just a week before.

Birthday dinner 2010 with friends and my son Jesse in the patio.

It had been three years since Ed’s 81st and our last birthdays and wedding anniversary together.  He put a bit of birthday cake to his lips and tasted a sip of champagne, but he was no longer eating.  Four days later he was gone.  This is a poignant time of year for me.

Better, perhaps, to remember our joyous wedding thirty years before that, with its wedding cake plus two birthday cakes, and friends and families gathered around in State College, Pennsylvania.

Giddy with happiness we set out in Ed’s venerable Volvo wagon, the wedding bouquet of peonies from our friends’ garden wedged between the seats. We were off to Shenandoah National Park where we camped and walked among the Mountain Laurel and Rhododendrons.

May 29, 1977: a wedding cake and two birthday cakes.
Leaving in the Volvo, May 29, 1977

For thirty years we celebrated our birthdays and our wedding

anniversary together on this same day.  We had no regrets.

So, here I sit this morning at the old oak table we bought together, where we shared so many meals with family and friends.  It was at this table that Jesse, Psyche and I wrote farewell notes to Ed, to be slipped in with him along with red roses from the garden when we accompanied his body to the crematorium.

I woke early this morning, seeing the pink light of dawn through the unshaded bedroom window.  I cuddled with the sleeping Kent.  My mind was full of thoughts of the significance of this day, and I could not go back to sleep.  When rose-gold light hit the upper branches of the towering cottonwood that had been little more than a sapling when we moved here twenty-nine years ago, I got up and wandered out into the garden, thinking how fortunate I am to occupy this beautiful piece of earth.  A few finches flew from tree to tree and hummingbirds flitted from shrubs to the feeders.  The fountain was silent.  A passenger jet crossed the southern sky, heading west.  We haven’t seen too many of them these days.

There is a faint hum of traffic from the freeway, and now another plane flies over.  The world is waking up, and the coronavirus pandemic is becoming the new normal.

I am up early enough to catch the morning prayers at St Michael’s.  I’d never gone when I would have had to dress and drive to attend.  It is quite lovely to be able to do this from home.

Our hair is growing long.  It has been six months since I had my last haircut just before baby Rumi was born in November.  We are not unhappy with this quiet life.  We are editing Kent’s memoirs of his years living on sail boats. I am working on photos and trying to organize my computer files. I still have so many projects to do, I need at least another year or two of self-quarantine to make significant progress.

Yet, I long to travel again.  Will I ever walk another Camino?  Will my body keep going?  Will my mind?  I already find myself unable to remember things it seemed I could once recall with ease, and I forget things I thought I’d never forget.

I go outside to look for the cat.  Did it climb another wall, go through the heart-cut-out in the bottom of the gate, or run around the house to the front?  I’ll never know.

The fruit trees have finished blooming, most of the fruit killed by a sudden frost.  There will be only a few sweet cherries this year, and no plums, peaches, or apricots.  There may be a very few apples.  But the pomegranate is blooming now, and the roses.  Life is good.  Happy birthday to me.

Note: the news of the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis policemen on Monday, May 25, had not yet reached me as I wrote this.  Since then, everything has changed again, and I would not be able to write now what I wrote then.  The sadness I felt on May 29, seems self-indulgent in light of what has happened in the past week.  More later.

Life, Death, Taxes, Birthdays and Iguanas: April 15-20, 2020

Birthday Party via Zoom

April 15, 9:30 am

The birthday cake is in the oven.  I have twenty minutes to write.

Today is grandson Zia’s third birthday.  We will be celebrating soon via Zoom, with his family at home and his aunties in Dubai and Bangladesh.  This is not how we thought our lives would be today.

Three years ago, I was participating in a Good Friday pilgrimage in downtown Albuquerque, stopping at stations of the cross that represented the suffering of Jesus in our modern world: among them a women’s shelter, the county jail, and the courthouse where volunteers accompanied asylum-seekers to their hearings.  I was anxiously awaiting the birth of my first grandchild, who should have arrived the previous week.  During the readings at the women’s shelter my phone issued a silent flash.  I took a quick peek.  The long-awaited baby was on the way!  Suddenly this solemn Good Friday was filled with joy and anticipation.  Life and death on the same day.

I thought of Zia’s Grandpa Ed, whom he has never known, and how he would have been thrilled with this tax-day dividend, a gift from his youngest daughter.  And I thought of the second Grampy Kent at home, not yet aware of the news.  He would share grandparenting with me (the only biological grandparent).

Today I received an email from dear friend Jenny.  She lives in Australia, which has suffered the double whammy of devastating fires and now coronavirus.  She wrote that today is her mother’s 90th birthday.  She, her husband and her Mum celebrated at home with cake and several festive meals, shared with family and friends via Zoom. Jenny and Jim were family to us during our year in Melbourne thirty years ago.  Her Mum and Dad invited us to share the Christmas festivities with their extended family at their lovely cottage near the beach.  None of us could have predicted we would be celebrating the birthdays of a 90-year-old and a three-year-old via Zoom on this day in 2020.  In 1988 we had a computer, on which we typed letters, printed them, and then mailed from the post office.

I have been thinking of Noah and the Ark.  Like Noah, we do not know when our quarantine will end, nor do we know what the world will be like when we return to it.  Just as when we experience the death of a loved one, we wait for life to return to normal, eventually realizing that there will be no return to normal.   Life has forever changed; and we must painstakingly create a new normal.

For Noah and his family, the isolation on the ark was a chance for a fresh start. The sinful world of quarreling people had been washed away, drowned in the flood.  I suspect, sadly, that Noah’s new normal very quickly became the same-old-same-old, with all the faults and flaws of human nature all too soon returning.  How glad they must have been to exit the ark after forty days and forty nights, despite the challenges that lay ahead. 

[Buzzer went off: cake done. Here is a very short video of the birthday celebration.]

April 18, morning

I look at the April calendar, marked with events we won’t be doing in places we won’t be going.  My heart is heavy this morning.  I can’t believe that I mis-wrote Amazon (the river, not the gigantic online company that has become part of our everyday life) as Amazoon when I sent a link to my photos from the Amazon.  What kind of Freudian slip was this?  Amazoon – a zoo?  Are we all creatures in a zoo or museum as Brenda Shaughnessy imagines in “Gift Planet,” featured this morning on Knopf’s April “Poem a Day” imagines.  We live in a world shaped by humans, for better and for worse.  We are married to our planet Earth, and there is no divorce but death.   Or, perhaps it was Amazoom slipping into my fingers as I typed, reflecting our new life with Zoom – a virtual reality—is that an oxymoron?

Dear departed Beezus

Meanwhile our president, our leader, sows rebellion and dissent.  Divide and conquer is one of the oldest tricks in the book.  Wild dogs are on the loose, and we poor sheep shelter in place, trembling, under the care of an unreliable shepherd.  Have you ever seen an angry sheep – perhaps a ram?

April 15 has come and gone.  For the first time ever, I have not submitted my tax return. I am sure the government needs the extra money (which we always owe) and will use it wisely when it is finally received.

April 20, 2020, afternoon

Today is the five-month birthday of the second grandson.  It has been three months since I last held baby Rumi (named for the poet and mystic).  Even though I was present at your birth, we do not know each other the way I knew Zia, whom I visited for several days each month during his first year.  I long to hold this sweet baby body.  Smiling and waving and sending baby-talk through Facetime is not the same.

Baby Rumi at two months

Five days have passed since I began writing these reflections.  Every day is like another.   The sky is bluer than I’ve ever seen it.  I’m editing pictures from the Galápagos, now, and I find the inscrutable faces of the iguanas particularly fascinating.  They eye me with a sideways stare, their mouths are shaped like enigmatic smiles.  They are living descendants of the dinosaurs – of powerful, terrifying dragons and serpents – who in European tradition represent monstrous enemies to be tamed or slain, but who, especially in Chinese tradition, also represent wisdom.  What might you say to us, iguanas, in this time of coronavirus?  I am fascinated by your seemingly irreconcilable combination of beauty, ugliness, and mystery.  What can we learn from you?

Smiling iguana: What can we learn from you?

Catching up in the Time of Coronavirus: April 16

Long walks in nearby open space provide exercise and respite.

It is now a full month that we have been sheltering in place, separated from the hugs of friends and family. We have been ordering groceries online, cooking at home, taking walks, attending meetings and church services via Zoom and streaming, and worrying about what the future holds. It has also been a time to catch up.

I’ve been organizing computer files and photos. I finally have edited and organized several albums from our January and February 2019 adventures traveling around Colombia by bus. I had earlier edited pictures from the first week of that trip, fom Bogotá to Bucaramanga, but now I’ve continued with Mompox (inspiration for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Year of Solitude)

2019-01-18-27 Colombia Mompox-Cartagena_2

https://www.flickr.com/photos/manga_mom/albums/72157713879027781

Cartagena https://www.flickr.com/photos/manga_mom/albums/72157713879100956

2019-01-18-27 Colombia Mompox-Cartagena_105

Medellin

2019-01-27-28 Medellin_6

and many more, concluding with a lovely Valentine’s Day back in Bogotá

We celebrated our three-year-old grandson’s birthday yesterday, via an international Zoom party:

Zia’s Third Birthday

Coninuing our stay-at-home traveling, we have been editing Kent and Pam’s accounts of their years living on board sailboats, with a working title We Ran Away to Sea.

Escaping Underwater While Sheltering in Place

April 2, 2020

It has been over two weeks now since we returned from what will probably be our last trip for a very long time. While we have been sheltering in place, my feelings have alternated between gratitude for my safe, comfortable life at home with time to work on projects and freedom from many responsibilities, and deep sadness over the suffering the COVID-19 is causing everywhere. To escape, I returned to the glorious underwater world of the Galapagos, editing the beautiful footage shot by our guide, Paola Sangolqui and putting it to muic. I invite you to escape with Paola and the turtles, rays, sharks and many other wonderful creatures of the sea in the pristine water of the Galapagos Islands.

Under the Sea in the Galapagos Islands

Grief, Pilgrimage, and Saint Patrick’s Day

17 March 2020

Grief: For the world transformed by the coronavirus pandemic, grief for the world we didn’t think we’d lose so suddenly, and perhaps irretrievably.  I grieve for the loss of my freedom to travel, to visit friends and family, to live as I please.  I grieve for the people of the world who are much more impacted than I have been so far:  for those who are ill, those who have lost their incomes, and their loved ones.  For Those who cannot, as our president admonishes us, “enjoy your living room.”

Yet, as I walked the ditch banks this afternoon, I thought of my life as a pilgrim, and how the pilgrim learns to accept whatever happens – learns that there are things that can be controlled and those that cannot.  The hardy group of American Pilgrims on the Camino who gathered last weekend on the shores of spectacular Lake Tahoe, adapted to ever-changing circumstances as news of the pandemic and subsequent regulations assailed us.  Travel to Europe was suspended, the Spanish Camino de Santiago closed and all pilgrims ordered to return to their homes, while a series of ever-bigger snowstorms caused many, including me, to depart from Lake Tahoe before the end of the Gathering, when a break in the snowfall presented an opportunity to cross the mountain passes.

So, here I sit, home now for twenty-four hours, thinking of all this as I listen to a recording of the great John McCormack singing Irish songs I’ve known and loved since my youth.  They are melancholy, as the lovers are parted by distance and death.  I’ve put on my shamrock necklace, even though I am not Irish, despite a hint of Celtic in my DNA.  But I have children who are one quarter Irish, and my first husband Ed had an Irish twinkle in his eye and a lilt in his voice that perhaps came from his mother, Ellen Mildred Courtney.

My intention for this Saint Patrick’s Day was to celebrate with my daughter Psyche, her husband Saad, and my two adorable grandchildren, ages almost three and almost four months.  But, alas, San Franciscans are “sheltering in place,” and to visit seemed foolhardy, if not impossible.  I long to be with them, because despite my lack of Irish heritage, the days surrounding Saint Patrick’s Day are important ones that are associated with momentous turning points in my life.

In 1973, in Tucson, Arizona, I celebrated completing my comprehensive exams for a master’s degree in English literature by throwing a party for which my mother made Cornish pasties and I baked a cake which I decorated with a picture of Saint Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland.  A reference librarian searched at length for details or an image of this legend, which we never found.  I begged her to stop looking; and was embarrassed to tell her it was only to decorate a cake – not for some serious research project.  Only after I became a reference librarian myself did I understand how librarians love the thrill and challenge of such searches and don’t want to to quit even when their patrons say, “Enough.”

Just four years later, on March 16, 1997, I first laid eyes on Ed Philips during my very first meeting of a Unitarian singles group in State College, Pennsylvania.  We had a brief conversation, but there was something about him that caused me to write in my diary that very evening, “If God wants me to marry Ed Philips, so be it.”  We were married on May 29 that same year, which was both of our birthdays, eighteen year apart.

In my kitchen hangs a beautifully framed group of photos.  An inscriptions reads:  Paquimé, near Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico, visited by Linnea Hendrickson, Helen Williamson, Jeanne Howard, and Ross Burkhardt, March 17, 1999.

The day before we departed on this trip, we found a puddle of oil under my car in Jeanne’s driveway.  Helen and I stayed an extra night in Las Cruces, so the car could be repaired.  We had had a celebratory traditional Saint Patrick’s Day dinner with Jeanne and Ross and assorted family the previous day, topped off with Irish coffee.  Now, as Helen and I drove alone across the remote, windswept roads of northern Chihuahua, we sang lustily along with John McCormack, a poignant memory, now that Jeanne (friend, adventurer, and trip and party organizer like me) is gone, and Helen (the first person I called upon Ed’s death) speaks to me no more.

Almost three years after Ed’s passing in June 2007, it was time to fulfill the vow I’d made while he was dying, to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.  I was planning to walk in September, starting somewhere in Spain, depending how far I thought I could walk in three or four weeks.  But in February 2010, I began reading Conrad Rudolph’s Pilgrimage to the End of the World, which filled me with a burning desire to walk from Le-Puy-en-Velay, in France, a distance more than twice as far as I’d intended to walk.

At a Christmas Eve party in 2009 – another event organized by Jeanne – I had met Kent, the “typewriter man.”  In February, he had driven all the way from Las Cruces to Albuquerque, and I’d guided him to the junk stores and antique shops to look for typewriters. We had continued to correspond via email.  Then in March, I decided it was time I hosted, as I often had with Ed, a Saint Patrick’s Day dinner, with corned beef, cabbage, Irish songs I had printed so everyone could sing, and even a Saint Patrick’s Day trivia quiz.  As I assembled my guest list the ratio of men and women was unbalanced.  Why not invite Kent?  He could always say no.  I sweetened the invitation by suggesting he spend the night and we go hiking the following day.  I was still pondering whether I could possibly fit in a walk starting in France in April and May, before I had to be home for events in June and July.

Kent came, and that evening everyone had to leave the dinner party early, leaving the two of us alone by eight p.m.  What to do with an evening stretching before us?  We visited, then went to bed in our separate rooms, to be ready to arise early to hike.  We took two cars, leaving one at the Embudo trailhead and another at Three-Gun-Spring.  It was a fairly strenuous hike up over the pass that connected the two trails.  I was testing myself, my new boots, pack, and hiking poles.  Could I really take off to walk in France?  That hike decided it – three weeks later I was walking alone in France, and writing to Kent (on computers with French keyboards that had z’s where the a’s should be).

That afternoon after our walk, we sat in my backyard eating leftover plum cobbler before he headed back to Las Cruces.  He looked around the large yard and said, “I really l like your place.”  It was so comfortable and companionable having him there, my heart gave a little leap, and I felt, “I think he belongs here.”

It would be another year before he came to stay, but that Saint Patrick’s Day was a turning point, and the beginning of a new beginning.

So now, after our ditch walk, and be-decked with shamrock necklaces, we are about to sit down, not to corned beef and cabbage and cobbler, alas, and without the company of friends, but to bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches, still happy to have each other in this broken world.