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Things That Helped Ease 2020

The year 2020 will go down in history as a tough one for so many people. It seems like everyone I meet has a difficult story. Some people have lost jobs. Others have lost loved ones. Still others live alone and feel the loneliness and lack of in-person contact, while some people working at home with kids have experienced overwhelming amounts of stress.

My own journey has included caring for loved ones with serious, debilitating and life-threatening illnesses, the death of my mother-in-law and a close friend, working in crisis communications during a pandemic and months of physical therapy for chronic wrist problems aggravated by a fall.

Despite the difficulties this year has presented, looking back I am grateful for the things that got me through 2020. I would love to know what helped you survive last year.

Here are some of the things that got me through:

Nature: Being in nature almost every day, whether for a walk on the trail near my house or farther afield, reminded me that the world continues on, no matter what is happening in my small corner of the universe.

Movement: Putting one foot in front of the other, working up a sweat, everything from yoga and dance to walking and swimming, exercise helped improve my mood and keep me calm.

Meditation: I made habit of meditating for 10 minutes on most days this year. I found that the feeling of calm often followed me into the rest of my day.

Pets: My cat and dog have been my constant companions, and I have become even closer to both of my furry friends. I play with the cat and take long walks with the dog almost every day.

Family and Friends: Virtual walk and talks. Visits with people within our bubble, back when it was possible to have a bubble. Physically distanced but in-person chats with colleagues. Knocks on the door with cookies and eggs left on the doorstep followed by a cheery conversation. The moments I spend with others lift my spirits and make me realize how much I miss that daily contact. Special bonus: my relationship with my husband has only become stronger during this most stressful year.

Reading: I read 52 books in 2020 – a book every week. Books have expanded my horizons, opened my imagination, made me laugh and cry and grow. I owe a debt of gratitude to my mom, my aunt, my neighbor and a dear friend who all sent me books this year. And a special thanks goes to my daughter-in-law, who got me a Book of the Month Club membership for Mother’s Day.

One of my favorite reads of the year.

Music: I began listening to more music on Spotify this year. I also bought a well-used piano and I’m now re-creating the music I learned as a child and teenager. Creating and listening to music has brought me great joy.

Gardening: I planted a summer vegetable garden and harvested tomatoes, butternut squash and bell peppers. I also put in my first winter garden, with lettuce, kale, spinach and broccoli.

Food: I discovered some food limitations in 2019 and became a pescatarian in 2020. Both events inspired me to try new recipes in 2020, most of which turned out to be delicious.

Greek lentil and spinach soup – great for chilly days.

Vegging: Some weekends, it was all I could do to get out of bed. Getting out of pajamas felt like too much. I let it happen, from binge-watching shows to reading a whole book to laying in a hammock and napping in the sun. Vegging helps.

Vegging done right – cup of tea, comfy slippers, manatee socks and Hello Kitty pajamas.

Zoom: That much-maligned meeting platform has an up side. I hosted a surprise birthday party for my cat the day she turned a year old. Sure, she ignored all of us, but family and friends came through and we had an enjoyable time visiting. I also planned a surprise Zoom birthday party for my husband and a Zoomsgiving. We were able to bring people together from Florida, North Carolina, California, New York and Washington State. Curt and I even played the board game Pandemic with friends who live 1500 miles away.

TV series/movies: My husband and I made our way through The Americans, Fleabag, Schitt’s Creek, The Queen’s Gambit and countless movies. I also caught up to the end of the current season of The Crown.

Correspondence: I increased my letter writing this year, and enjoyed renewing the feeling of connection through correspondence. I found fun cards and stationery and looked forward to checking the mailbox once again.

Laughter and tears: Sometimes I need a good laugh. Sometimes I need a good cry. Sometimes it might be both at the same time. I let the emotions flow as they will; it’s what will get me through this.

Laughter pictured – I will spare you an image of the ugly cry.

Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had multiple opportunities for comfort and joy this past year, despite all the sadness. I hope that you did too, and that you can find some in the year to come.

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A year of doing nothing

People have experienced so many losses this year: Huge losses, including jobs, loved ones and lives, and things such as gatherings, hugs and routines. Some people appear to have weathered quarantines and shelter-in-place orders by learning new languages, training for marathons and purchasing puppies. But those of you who found yourselves looking for a reason to leave the comfort of your beds, whose greatest accomplishment was finishing a few good shows on Netflix (we are currently on Season 5 of Schitt’s Creek), have also achieved something important. However you have survived 2020, I hope this speaks to you.

Spirit lies fallow.

Dun-colored dust

Laid bare to wind and rain,

Appearing

To be nothing.

Beneath the surface,

Cracks where roots once thrived.

Above, once-green leaves, flowers

Withering,

Turned to brown.

One day soon,

Tiny, tender shoots will

Stretch tendrils through the dirt,

Welcoming

A new day.

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Lessons in Parenting: The Rat in the Dryer

When you become a parent, no one tells you how to get the rat out from underneath the dryer.

Nothing, no amount of reading, of class-taking, caring for siblings, babysitting or owning a dog, can really prepare a person for parenthood.

I know this from personal experience. My only qualification for being the parent of an 11-year-old boy was that I gave birth to said baby boy 11 years before. But when I held his tiny form in my arms and stared into his eyes for the first time, I had no idea what I was getting into.

Sure, by the time he was 11, I had gained experience over the years in many different things. For instance, I know all the words to “Little Bunny Foo-Foo” and “On Top of Spaghetti.” I re-discovered my cheering voice, which I used vociferously at soccer and basketball games, drowning anyone within 100 yards of me in a sea of noise. I’ve sat in emergency rooms on snowy nights. I’ve rocked trembling, feverish bodies to sleep on my shoulders. Once, I explained to a teary toddler the absence of a beloved stuffed animal who was inadvertently left behind in an emergency evacuation (“Newt went skiing, honey, and he’ll be back” — and he did come back, courtesy of UPS).

But none of that, not one bit of it, prepared me for the part of parenthood where I had to extract a rat from beneath one of my appliances.

The rat in question was a temporary houseguest, living with us until the fifth-grade science fair project ended. He arrived on my doorstep with my son Emile one day, along with a mouse, in a cage that seemed sufficient at the time.

Two days later, on a lazy Sunday morning, I went into Emile’s room to check on the rodents. There was no rat in sight.

“He’s got to be in here somewhere,” I mumbled to Emile, looking under his bed, behind his desk, in his closet. “After all, we kept the door closed.”

Emile gave me a grim look and pointed silently at the door. I followed his finger with horror to the rat-sized space beneath it. The rate had not just scaled the cage wall – he had the run of the house. He could be anywhere.

“Oh,” I said to Emile. “Excuse me.” I flew to my room and tossed the covers into the air. Visions of waking up to find a rodent crawling on me danced in my head. Happily for all of us, the rat did not appear to be in my bed.

All day, the rat’s disappearance weighed on my mind as I went about the day, sporadically searching for him. I worried that one of our two cats or the dog would find him, and we would soon encounter a discarded rat part left behind by one of them. Then I worried that we would never find him, and “he” would turn out to be a “she,” and she would give birth to a rat colony that would live forever in my walls, emerging occasionally to snack on our food and gnaw on our furniture.

Then, as evening fell, at exactly the same moment my younger cat and I caught sight of movement by the dryer. The cat lunged at the movement. I lunged for the cat. As I did, I saw the rodent’s tail disappear behind the dryer. I thanked the cat and deposited him outside. Then I climbed atop the dryer. Anything that operates with gas designed to heat things to great temperatures deserves a lot of respect. And now there was a rat underneath mine.

Emile handed me a broom and climbed up on the washer. We tried to persuade the rat to come out, but he was not convinced. Suddenly we could not see or hear him under the dryer, and then I heard a terrible sound.

I heard a gnawing sound coming from inside the back of the dryer.

It was just me and Emile in the house. We needed reinforcements. I quickly called a friend with muscles. “There’s a rat chewing on the internal workings of my gas dryer and it’s too heavy for me to move. Come quickly! No, wait, we can move it. Wait, the rat’s not… Oh! Sorry. Look, I’ll call you if I need any heavy lifting, okay? Thanks!”

I hung up on my confused friend and sought out the yellowed pages of the dryer’s manual. I thought I’d shut off the gas valve so the rat can’t blow us to smithereens. As I thumbed through it, I pondered my options. I had no idea who might be helpful in this situation. Plus, it was 9 p.m. on a Sunday. The rat was noshing its way through appliance parts. And I was The Parent. This was my problem to solve, except for one minor detail – I felt totally out of my league.

I realized that the chewing noise is coming from the front of the dryer, and the aged manual showed how to open the front panel. Emile finally pried it open with some ineffectual help from me. His arm darted into the suddenly open space. His hand emerged, grasping the sneezing rat, who was covered in dust. Emile cradled him gently, then took him elsewhere to wipe the dust off while I inspected each millimeter of the dryer’s underbelly looking for frayed bits. Finding none, I put the machine back together.

As I did so, I thought about all the things no one ever tells you about parenting. No one can tell you, because no one knows it all. Sometimes, being a parent is the most intimidating thing in the world. And you wonder how you ever became qualified to be one.

But moments later, as Emile and I prepared to put the rat back in his cage under “lockdown,” I watched my son as he held the animal gently in the palm of one hand and petted it with the other, looking anxiously at the sneezing creature.

“Mom? Is he going to be okay?” he asked me, a worried look in his eyes.

And I felt a surge of love for this young person, a boy who I had raised since birth, and had come to know better every day. And I realized that, no matter how many more rats ended up under the dryer, feeling out of my depth is a small price to pay for the privilege of being a parent.

Plus, after that experience, I knew I could add “rat catcher” to my resume.

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Favorite Season

I feel slightly guilty for having a favorite season. It feels a little like preferring one child over another.

There are aspects of every season that I love — at least for a little while. The flushed heat of summer feels welcome in June, but by September, I’m ready for a change. The first snow of winter seems magical, but by February I’m longing to be snow-free and see spring.

Ah, spring! Lime green leaves sprouting on every branch, flowers exploding colorfully into bloom, baby animals frolicking on emerald grass. All that newness and color and life.

Still, it’s not spring that wins me.

Over and over again, I fall for autumn.

The sky has a distinct crispness and the air contains a tang of dust and dry leaves. Said leaves chorus in a rustle with the wind. The colors of the fields and trees transform, flush with the last hurrah before they drop.

I welcome the morning chill that requires a fluffy robe and slippers accompanied by a cup of hot tea. I also love the warm sunshine of the afternoon, perfect for puttering in the garden or taking a walk. And every year, I suddenly, inexplicably feel a strong urge to bake and to make soup.

Butternut squash soup

Many people tell me they prefer spring to fall, for fall reminds them that winter comes next, when many things die and the trees and fields look barren. But I love autumn, in part, because it is followed by winter. I love that the world can celebrate itself even in the face of death and decay, that the leaves can shout “look at me!” as they display their last hurrah before letting go of life and making their way to earth. And there I walk among their myriad colors, nudging them to their final resting place where they will become one with the soil once more.

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Remembering a musical mentor

I recently bought a used piano after almost 15 years piano-free. I managed to dig out several of my old, yellowing piano books, which have followed me from my childhood in Washington state to Arkansas to Florida and finally to California. And when I opened them, my piano teacher’s handwriting transported me back more than 40 years to a two-story blue Victorian house sitting atop a hillside in a small rural town in the late 1970s.

I had begged my parents to take piano lessons, and somehow they found Dorothy Elfin, or Mrs. Elfin, which is how I still think of her today. Mrs. Elfin lived up to her name — a petite woman with her hair in a pixie cut framing a heart-shaped face that often broke into a smile. Her home sported a shiny black baby grand piano in the front of the living room, and tasteful antique furniture finished out the area to the rear of the house. I never spent time there, however; we solely focused our attentions on the black and white keys of the baby grand.   

Once a week I would hike up the steep hill after school and arrive, breathless, on her doorstep. Mrs. Elfin would greet me, get me a glass of milk or water, and sit me down at the piano for my lesson.

For the first few years, I slogged through learning notes and scales and chords, my hands plonking across the notes. Mrs. Elfin seemed to have infinite stores of patience and encouragement at her disposal; never did a sigh escape her lips, nor did she ever even have a hint of an eye roll. Instead, she always found something positive to say, and always seemed to know where to lead me next.

Soon, I began to play pieces with more emotion. Mrs. Elfin would listen and nod, offering suggestions for how to hit the notes. Instead of assigning me new material, she would say, “I think you might enjoy learning this piece…” and she would take over the bench and play to see if it spoke to me. She rarely missed the mark.

I took lessons from Mrs. Elfin from my pre-teens into my teens, and sometimes my hormones got the best of me. I would get frustrated by my inability to learn a piece or burst into tears because of some now-forgotten drama. Mrs. Elfin, who raised three children of her own, never seemed thrown by these moments. Instead, she would gently ask me questions to help me get to the root of whatever it was that was bothering me, and after that my tears or frustration would recede.

Mrs. Elfin encouraged me to stretch and take risks. I was a painfully shy pre-teen who never spoke up in class and blushed if a boy spoke to me. Mrs. Elfin hosted mini piano recitals at her home, a place I found to be comfortable, and so I would play, hands shaking, for a small group of students and families draped over her furniture as the audience. I gradually became more comfortable with playing for an audience, so one day she suggested I perform in the state adjudications, where students play for other piano teachers, students and judges and receive feedback from the judges on their performance. I agreed to do so.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Mrs. Elfin was my first mentor. Not only did she teach me how to play the piano beautifully, but she helped me become the person that I am today. She allowed me to find the characteristics that I needed to come out of my shell without judging me for being in that shell in the first place. Seeing her handwriting in my yellowed books made me grateful that I had the chance to be her student.

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Cutting back to grow

Taking a leaf from how plants handle pruning.

It’s September 2020 in California, during a worldwide pandemic, during some of the worst wildfires ever seen. Smoke and ash have fallen from the sky for more than a month now. The sun, obscured by particles, casts a dull, other-world orange across the landscape.

On the rare days when the air proves good enough to breathe, I go out to tend my garden. And at this time of year, that means a lot of pruning. Given that I have a lot of time on my hands (see global pandemic and wildfire smoke), pruning my garden started me thinking about a different kind of cutting back.

Since March, like people around the world, I have experienced loss. And many have experienced oceans more loss than I have. Still, life as I knew it has been curtailed, and I mourn aspects of that life six months out. On a daily basis, I have missed my co-workers, friends and family. I have missed people who I said “hello” to every day on my way to and from work. I miss the small interactions of saying “hello” when passing students in the UC Davis Arboretum, watching ducklings follow their mothers across the green grass, stopping to smell a flower.

I miss going to a restaurant and people watching. I miss anticipated and canceled classical music concerts, comedy shows, random meet-ups at a coffee house.

The wildfire smoke has added another layer of loss to 2020. Many people have had to flee, have lost their homes or even their lives. My losses loom less large than those, yet I still feel them. On days when the air is unhealthy, I miss having a morning cup of tea on the porch, reading a book in the hammock, walking the dog, going for a hike.

“Cut back, cut back, cut back…when does it end?” I grumble. Then, when the air quality allows, I get out the pruning shears and go to tend my garden.

You see, many fruit and vegetable plants become more productive with pruning. This seems counterintuitive. How do you get more produce with less plant? The secret: Plants left to their own devices will continue to grow shoots and leaves and stems, but they won’t produce as many fruits and vegetables. They grow, yes, but it isn’t productive growth.

When I first began growing tomatoes around 20 years ago, pruning proved the most challenging part of gardening. I imagined tiny screams coming from the plants as I pulled out the shears. “Please! No!” they cried as I drew the sharp edges across their green stems. I pruned sparingly and my tomatoes became reedy and weedy, producing small, listless fruits.

After a few years I schooled myself and began to prune more skillfully. The plants responded by growing a bigger bounty. I’ve been happily honing my pruning skills ever since.

This September, I’ve been thinking back to those first years. Now I can identify with the plants, projecting the pain of the shears onto their tender green shoots. Cutting back is painful. This year is painful. Yet are there fruits to be had? Ways to grow? How can I take this cutting back and grow through it in a way that produce something nourishing?

Many things have been cut back in 2020, but questions about how this pruning might give me an opportunity to grow keep me going. As does my garden.

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Crazy Cat Lady level-up

My husband has teased me for years about being a Crazy Cat Lady, but I’ve always denied it. Until this April.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved and owned cats all of my life. But I’ve been reasonable and measured in that love. My last two cats came into my life when I was a single parent, and they lived long, happy lives, passing away within six months of one another in 2018 at the ages of 14 and 16.

I spent a few months cat-less, with a small, cat-sized hole in my heart. Then we took our dog, Shadow, to the vet, and they had rescued an injured pregnant cat who had kittens. They had one left for adoption – the runt of the litter.

It was love at first sight.

Love at first sight.

We brought her home and she quickly won over everyone in the family. We named her Ash. She’s playful, brave, silly and affectionate. As a dear friend so rightly observed, we were smitten with this kitten.

Hello.

And she turned a year old recently, on April 18.

She was so little!

So a week before the Big Day I said to my husband, “I’m going to have a birthday party for Ash next Saturday.” He looked at me like I had three heads and said “Ummmm….”

I stared back at him pointedly. “Do we have other plans?”

There wasn’t really a response to that, since we are in the midst of a global pandemic and going absolutely nowhere.

I didn’t make up my mind to have an actual party, complete with guests and presents and treats, until the night before Ash’s birthday. But when I did, I decided to go all out. I invited family and friends to a Zoom birthday party for our cat, starting at 2 p.m. the next day.

“There will be presents,” I told them. “There will be cake. There will be candles. And there might even be a cat.”

Gratuitous cat photo.

I started prepping in the morning. I bought a cupcake with rainbow frosting and a pink and white polka-dotted candle in the shape of a “1.” I bought a small toy for Ash, as well as one for our dog, Shadow, and a present for my husband Curt. I bought a small can of chicken paté as a treat for the cat. I found festive bags for all of the presents.

At home, I began to contemplate my wardrobe. That’s when the suspicion came over me that perhaps I AM a Crazy Cat Lady. I have the space cat T-shirt I bought years ago at a mall in San Diego. I have the cat paw socks my mom gave me and the kitty hat my aunt knitted for me. I was completely kitted out with no effort whatsoever.

Crazy Cat Lady for the win.

Another gratuitous cat photo.

The Zoom gathering was a great success. We all enjoyed seeing one another. We sang “Happy Birthday” to Ash while Curt held her and she “blew” out her candle. No one caught on fire and Curt survived unscathed. We unwrapped presents and said “hello” to the other furry creatures on Zoom – four more cats and a dog.

Captured playing with the dog.

As for the cat, during the party she ignored her Zoom friends on the computer, rejected the cat food, stared at the toy for a moment and then headed for a quiet spot to take a nap.

Goodbye.
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Wish you were here

On my morning walk today, suspended between a storm front over the Sierras and a bank of gray clouds from the Pacific, I marveled at the sky.

I wish you had been here to see the ever-changing landscape of the clouds painted by the wind, the sun slowly seeping over the darkness to the east. Birds sang overhead and the wind rushed and hushed with abandon.

Finally the sun broke like an egg yoke over the horizon, its yellow light bathing everything in sight.

If you had been here with me, we would have turned to one another and you would have seen me smile.

Just like the smile I have now, thinking of you on this walk with me.

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Book Life

I almost got in trouble for reading too much when I was in nursery school at Washington State University where my parents taught. The school had student teachers whose job it was to observe children’s interactions. After I had been there three weeks, the head of school called my parents. She gravely informed them that the student teacher observing me was upset because I mostly sat in a tiny nook and read books all day instead of interacting with the other children. My parents told her that was fine with them.

I recall very few television stories from my childhood. But I remember many, many books. My parents read to us; all of the Dr. Seuss books, then longer books like Old Yeller. I read everything I could get my hands on. I read Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’ Dell. I read all the Nancy Drew books and Encyclopedia Brown series. I read The Little House on the Prairie Books, Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna. I read Where the Red Fern Grows and my mom found me one day sitting on the living room floor in a puddle of tears. “My god, what’s the matter?” She cried, and I replied, sobbing, “this, this book!” She nodded in understanding.

Both of my parents were avid readers. My dad read history books mostly. My mom reads a variety of books — novels, short stories, fiction, nonfiction. At one point, they belonged to the Book of the Month club.

I recall trips to the Whitman County Public Library to get books. I loved being part of the summer reading club. Mom would take me downtown to the low-slung building, and we would both leave with a stack of books piled high to our chins. To this day, one of the first things I do when I move to a new town is to get a library card.

As we got older, dad read longer books such as The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring aloud to me and my sister. I loved the books much I read them again myself. I graduated to more adult authors and books — Issac Asimov, Margaret Atwood. I read poets like Sylvia Plath.

I went through reading phases as a teenager. When we lived in England, I read every book that Agatha Christie wrote. I went through a Thomas Hardy phase. There was a Charles Dickens and Theodore Dreiser phase, as well as a dark Russian novelist phase, where I delved into Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn and Gogol. Lest you think I stuck to the classics, I went through a Barbara Cartland phase — a novelist who wrote Victorian romance novels.

I loved these different views and perspectives. I still do. I love to sit in a quiet space and read. I love to read outside in a shady place on a warm day. I love to read inside with a cosy fire and a cup of tea while it rains outside. I love to read in bed before going to sleep. I love to read on airplanes and in waiting rooms. I love to read companionably with another person nearby doing the same thing.

I come from a long line of readers. Legend has it that my grandfather would come down and find my grandmother and father up, long after bedtime, sitting in chairs reading. He would yell at them — don’t you know what time it is?! Get to bed! And they would look up, dazed from whatever world they had been inhabiting and slowly make their way to bed to find some sleep.

So when my son Emile was born, I immediately began to think of all the things I could read to him. We had Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Just before my dad died, he and I intently debated which Dr. Seuss books to buy him first — Go Dog Go, Fox in Socks and Green Eggs And Ham made that list.

When Emile turned nine, he was the right age for me to start reading the Harry Potter books to him — the first three had been published. I would read him a chapter every evening, and when I was finished with it, he would beg me for another one. I would try to resist — it’s bedtime, I would say — but I would often give in.

I read the first three books to him, and suddenly he was old enough to read the next book himself. We heavily anticipated the arrival of fourth book, and we actually ordered it from a bookstore in Memphis where a close friend was getting married the day after the book came out. During the after-wedding festivities, my son and several other children of the same age found quiet spots to start reading while the adults danced to lively music nearby.

When the last book in the series came out, my son, now between his junior and senior years in high school, was at a summer camp at the University of Arkansas. I promised him that I would get the book at the midnight release and bring it to him the next day. What I did not promise was that I wouldn’t read it first.

It had been many years since I had read a book in one day. Sitting down with that last Harry Potter book for a day was magical. I laughed. I cried. When I finished the book, I felt bereft, leaving a world I had grown to love behind.

My phone rang. It was Emile.

“Do you have it?”

“Yes.”

“Can you bring it over?”

“Yes.”

I drove to the campus dorm where he and others were staying. I pushed open the front door and saw several teens. Their eyes widened when they saw what I was holding, and I gripped the book tighter.

Emile came downstairs, eyes glowing, gave me a hug and scampered off. Later, he told me that a bunch of his friends had watched 300 that night, but that he had elected to stay behind and read.

To this day, I still read voraciously. I kept a book journal this year, and I average about three books a month for a total of 40 books. I like to read a variety of books. I read fiction, nonfiction, history, biography, memoir. I’ve read science fiction, mystery, romance. This year I read Becoming by Michele Obama; Stalin’s Daughter; A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles; All the Light we Cannot See; and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, to name but a few.

In 2012, I finished my master’s degree in French literature after taking classes over the course of six years, and during that time I immersed myself in books ranging from the troubadour literature of the Middle Ages to Rabelais to the rationalists Racine and Corneille and the romantics Stendhal and Hugo. I’ve also read books by great francophone writers such as Assia Djebar, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Albert Memmi. We read short stories and epistolary novels and I learned so many things about the culture and history of many places that I would never have known about any other way.

I’ve also been part of two beautiful book clubs, one in Arkansas and one in Florida, that opened my eyes to books I might never have read otherwise. For instance, someone suggested that we read a book called Devil in the White City by Eric Larsen, who I had never heard of before. The book was set around the turn of the 20th century and was about the World’s Fair in Chicago. I shrugged my shoulders and prepared to be bored.

Instead, the book fascinated me. Larsen’s writing was riveting. I have since found and read every book he has written, including Dead Wake, a book about the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I. Even though you know the ship sinks, it’s one of the most moving books I have ever read.

I still feed my reading habit through the library, but also have the great fortune that my mom and I enjoy many of the same sorts of novels. So my mom sends me boxes of books after she has accumulated a bunch of them. It’s uncanny how, when I get to a point where I think, “I’m just about to run out of books to read,” a brown cardboard box will appear on my doorstep, filled with the next series of bedside reading.

Reading has expanded my horizons and my knowledge of the world far beyond my wildest expectations. I am grateful to my parents for creating an environment where reading was part of the fabric of our lives.

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My Nature Manifesto

A colleague at work asked me if I had a manifesto.

I replied “no” and asked why. She told me that a news article about a recent mass shooting California said the shooter did not leave behind a manifesto, as if that was unusual.

“Is that a thing now? Are shooters supposed to have manifestos? What about the rest of us?” She said.

Our conversation made me wonder aloud about what my own personal manifesto would look like. At first, I said my manifesto would be full of kittens. Which now, of course, is somewhat true, because I just wrote the word “kittens” in my actual manifesto. Twice.

However, kittens aside, my manifesto has to be about nature.

Go outside. Yes, right now. Take your device with you and keep reading. Take a deep breath. Fill your nostrils and your lungs with air. Feel the breeze, or the heat, or the chill or the humidity on your skin. Look up at the sky, at the blue, the gray, the black, the clouds, the sun, the stars, the moon, the birds. Look back down. Do you see grass? Plants? Trees? What is alive in your current surroundings? Be alive with whatever nature is near you, right now.

When I go outside, I like to get away from all the comforts we have constructed to distance ourselves from nature, all the walls and windows and air conditioners and heaters, all the lamps and end tables and televisions. I try to shed the noise from automobiles and airplanes and the smell of motor oil or wet pavement.

I surround myself instead with nature — falling leaves, birds and brooks singing to one another, tree branches bending in the wind to kiss the brambles. Every thing around me is alive, in the same way that we are alive, even the rocks and soil and water. All of it comes from the same source. The molecules that make humans are related to the moss and lichen, the acorn and tree. All of the things we see in nature have their origins more than 3 billion years ago in the primordial soup; we share that connective tissue.

In nature, everything seems in the process of either being born or dying. Small saplings grow next to fallen oaks. Brown, dry leaves shelter growing mushrooms. Insects eat the decomposing body of a dead squirrel. In nature, I’m constantly reminded of the finite nature of my existence, which makes appreciate each moment I have. I’m also reminded that it’s part of the natural process of ALL life, including my own.

Immersed in the cycle, being a part of that cycle, makes all things fall into place. What power does Instagram have over the flow of water that has worn through hard rocks over millions of years to carve its way to the sea? What hold do YouTube videos have when eagles soar on thermals, then plunge into the water to catch their dinner?

We need to nurture this connection with the natural world now more than ever, as our attempts to distance ourselves from nature have damaged the Earth possibly past repair. Any reparation we can achieve will only happen when we understand that we cannot exist without the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food that comes from plants grown in fertile soil.

So go outside. Find nature. Make that connection.

That’s it. My Nature Manifesto. I choose life. I choose nature. I invite you to choose it with me, whether it’s visiting your farmer’s market to buy fresh produce, tending a garden, bringing a plant to work, reducing your carbon footprint or hiking for weeks in the wilderness. We all need nature; we will not survive without it.

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Autumn leaves

Today as I raked leaves in the front yard, my neighbor and his little girl came out of their house, the girl holding a giant bag nearly as big as she was.

“I want red ones and yellow ones and orange ones…” she said.

I knew exactly what they were doing.

Fall has always been my favorite time of year. I grew up in the middle of rolling wheat fields with very few trees. In town, we had lots of evergreens. One park, called Reaney Park, had a lot of large deciduous trees, and I remember being drawn to that park in autumn to watch the leaves tumble from their branches, breathe in their musty scent and hear the rattle as they chased one another across the dry grass. The sky looked crisp and blue and the air hinted that winter might come, but it stayed hot enough to warm my skin.

My friends and I would pile as many leaves as we could and throw them in the air, or kick our feet through the piles to hear the shush-shush sounds they made. We would collect the ones we thought had the prettiest colors and bring them home to show our parents.

When I left home for college in Ohio, I reveled in the fall colors; yellows, oranges, greens, reds and browns. I looked for any opportunity to kick my feet through piles of leaves. On afternoon rambles, I would look through the piles and select the ones I thought had the most beautiful colors. Sometimes a leaf would keep the green chlorophyll near its veins, while the rest of it turned yellow. Sometimes a leaf would contain yellow, green and orange. Sometimes the green was rimmed with red. And yet other times the pure, bright red of a leaf would strike me, and I would add it to my leaf bouquet.

I’ve lived in many different places as an adult. During my six years in Florida, I loved the warmth but missed the autumn leaves. Moving to Northern California has brought them back into my life. I’ve been taking photos of the beautiful colors for weeks. Leaves changing in my back yard, on the trails, on campus. I’m delighted to be back in territory where nature sheds one color to reveal others. It’s a beautiful canvas and reminds me that loss has its own beauty.

After I overheard my neighbors on their leaf-hunting expedition, I began one of my own. I’ll be adding to my bouquet over the next few weeks as our leaves continue to fall.

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Coyote

Between dark and light,

As the owl sings its melancholy melody,

You appear.

First formless,

Then my eyes discern your shape,

Gray against gray.

I freeze.

You still.

Our gazes lock.

I wonder at your lush tail, your vulpine visage.

You size me up, ready for a challenge.

Something wild and untamed moves within me.

I resume my path forward.

As I move, you fade into the landscape

And disappear,

Although I continue

To seek you

Long after you are gone.

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Borrowing against joy

A few weeks ago I had a mammogram. It was a six-month follow up to a mammogram that found small calcifications in the breast tissue. Nothing to worry about, the radiologist assured me. It’s just a good idea to check it out of an abundance of caution. Standard protocol and all that.

After the test, the technologist led me to a small, square, windowless room with four chairs and a round table. She told me to have a seat, and the doctor would be with me as soon as he was able.

I sat down and opened the nearest magazine. And as I did, I had a bad feeling. It came on suddenly, uninvited and unwanted, but vivid and unrelenting, knocking around in my psyche.

The feeling had a voice, and it whispered: “What if it IS breast cancer?”

Unbidden, I pictured the doctor entering the room in his white coat, taking a deep breath, looking at his hands while telling me the news. In a flash I saw my life change. I could feel my breath catch and my body flinch under the anticipated news.

“Anticipated?” my brain interrogated the voice, gently but firmly. “You have no reason to believe that. And whatever happens, even if it’s the worst case scenario, you will get through it when the time comes.” I took a deep breath and returned to reading.

I would love to say that this was the only time in my life when I have experienced this ambush of fear, this bracing against anticipated anguish, but that would be untrue. For a long time I suppressed such thoughts entirely. I felt ashamed, paranoid, labeled myself a hypochondriac. But that only meant that the thoughts manifested themselves in other ways, in unexplained anxiety or irritation that seemed to make no sense.

In fact, upon reflection, it makes more sense that a person with my history — who nearly died of a catastrophic illness at age 7, who had an emergency appendectomy in Mexico at age 39 and a total hip replacement at 46 — WOULD brace herself for bad news at the doctor’s office. However, I haven’t found that borrowing against joy has made it any easier to deal sorrow when it arrives. I’ve also found, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that I’ve worried about a lot of things that never happened.

Now, instead of letting anxious thoughts overwhelm me, or fighting against them, I try to identify the bad feeling, listen to what it has to say, acknowledge it and then move on. It’s only a thought, after all, fleeting through my head along with the thousands of thoughts I have every day. The trick is to not become attached to the thought as it comes, not to borrow against the joy that is possible if I simply wave at the thought and let it pass through.

So that day in the radiologist’s office, I said goodbye to my worst case scenario and enjoyed a few more pages of the magazine. The doctor came in the room and we talked for a few minutes. The news was fine; everything looked unchanged from the last time. I left the doctor’s office ready to find joy in the rest of my day.

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Lessons learned while washing dishes

In the 1980s, while I attended a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, I worked at the dormitory cafeterias. I held a variety of jobs, from serving students food at lunch to replenishing donuts for brunch to working on the dishwasher line.

On the dishwashing line, my fellow students and I sorted out the plates, bowls, glasses and silverware from trays that glided by on a conveyor belt through a small square hole that connected the kitchen to the cafeteria. Just below the conveyor belt was a small shallow sink that ran its length, complete with flowing water that would whisk away any leftover food from the trays. The four of us students also had a giant garbage can within easy reach.

The small, square room was hot and steamy and bathed in bright light. Each student had an assigned task — one would take the glasses, another the plates, a third the bowls and the fourth person would tackle the silverware. We all had to throw any leftover food or liquid into the sink before us and toss any trash into the garbage cans at our sides. As the trays glided by, our job was to snatch our designated item from the trays, empty them of any food or liquids and deposit them into the industrial-sized dishwashing racks. Then our four professional colleagues would lift the giant racks and place them in the maw of the giant automated dishwashing machine. The machine would roar and growl and do its work, and the workers would remove the clean racks from the other side and set them apart for use at dinner.

We wore giant aprons as we performed our tasks. The students learned the rest of the uniform quickly: Don’t wear long sleeves, but wear jeans and close-toed shoes. Don’t wear your best clothes. Expect to get wet and dirty. And be sure to schedule a shower when you are done.

I worked in the busiest cafeteria on campus during the biggest meal of the day – lunch hour. We could see up to 800 trays coming through in two hours on a given day. We would start out our shift with cordial greetings and banter, asking how everyone had been since we were last together. By 11:30, a steady stream of trays would begin coming through the tiny window, and we would continue to joke and talk as we worked. At some point, one of the workers would turn on some music, which often sparked a lively debate about who liked what kind of tunes.

By 12:15, the stream of trays had ballooned to a deluge, and our pace shot into sprint mode, hands flying as we sorted and racked. An occasional glass or plate fell to the ground and brought a round of ribbing from our co-workers, as well as a swift move by one of them to grab a broom and dustpan to clear the sharp objects out of the way. At the conveyor belt, we were rooted in place, arms flying back and forth, music playing in the background, singing to the tunes, handing the full racks to our coworkers and replacing them with empty ones as fast as we could move.

By the time 1:30 rolled around, the deluge had returned to a trickle. We would congratulate each other on finishing another successful shift. I would leave, my muscles tired and aching, smelly and sweaty, my shoes covered in spilled milk and soda, satisfied that I had earned my money that day.

On rare occasions, someone would call in sick. On these days, we would have to improvise and parse out what team members would do, either for sorting or for racking. For instance, we might help out the rackers by bringing our own racks over to the dishwasher, or they might help us out by pitching in to sort dishes for a while.

On one memorable occasion, the building lost power during the peak time at lunch. The conveyor belt halted. The water in the sink stopped. The only light in the room came dimly from high windows. Students continued to bring their trays and push them through the the small opening that led into the cafeteria. We frantically sorted dishes and stacked them in racks, and then the rackers stacked the racks to await the power. Trash began to pile up along with racks of unwashed dishes. The sink began to fill with discarded food and beverages. When the power finally came on after two hours, we cheered and jumped up and down and hugged each other as if we had won a victory. It was a day that showed how essential our work was to everyone who wanted to eat lunch off of clean dishes.

I learned many things in college, and working in food service taught me even more. I discovered that caring, friendly co-workers make work better. I learned that all members of the team matter and that it is important to show up. We celebrated our victories and respected one another. We had each other’s backs.

An perhaps most importantly, I learned that ALL work matters. We performed an essential function for the college, and working with my colleagues in food service gave me an opportunity to know and respect them and their work. Over the years since then, I have observed people treat workers in certain positions as “less” because of what they do. I say, put yourself in the shoes of the workers to honor the work they do and its essential place in the world.

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The feather

Dear Bird,

I found your feather today on my walk

Lying against the crisp brown late-summer grass.

I wonder:

Did you pluck it purposefully from your skin,

Because it had lost its usefulness?

Or was it torn from your wing in a dispute

With another raptor?

Did it shake loose in a tussle

With your dinner-time prey?

Or did it simply fall unnoticed from your body

As you soared into the sky,

Leaving this small token to land on the earth,

At my feet?

I wonder:

At the colors and patterns the tiny barbs create,

A small part of the larger creature you have become.

The feather lies between my fingers, insubstantial.

It feels like nothing, yet

Hundreds of these lift your body into the blue day

Thousands of feet above, hundreds of miles away

From me

Here on earth

With your feather.

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Tangled

I knit, which means I spend a lot of quality time with yarn. A lot of yarns come in skeins, which are strands of yarn looped together in a loose coil. These large loops become easily tangled, so knitters often use a yarn winder, a device with a handle that you can crank and a cone in the middle for a strand of yarn, plus a yarn swift, an apparatus that holds the skein in a wide circle, to wind the skein into a compact ball. But if you have a yarn winder but no yarn swift, there are lots of opportunities for the yarn to become tangled as you attempt to wind it.

When a ball of yarn becomes tangled, it can be tempting to fight it. You may instinctively want to take the long strand of untangled yarn, the one part that looks “normal,” and pull on it. And at first that might work. But you will soon find that this strategy yields a tight knot at the center of the tangle that will not budge. Time to try a different solution.

Instead of pulling the tangle tighter, the opposite often proves more effective. It helps to loosen the knot, to pull back and relax the yarn instead of tugging on it. This letting go requires patience and attention, a willingness to explore what exists in your hands. You have to follow some paths that will get you nowhere. You may have to backtrack or even make things messier before they become neat. No matter how much you crave to make order from chaos, you sometimes have to dwell in the chaos for a while before order arrives.

The same often proves true in life.

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A writing life

My junior year of high school featured a huge disruption that would change my life moving forward and inspire a habit that stays with me to the present.

In 1982, my mom, dad, sister and I traveled from Pullman, Washington, to London, England, where we lived for a year while my parents took a sabbatical from their jobs at Washington State University. The 4,695 miles might has well have been on another planet as far as communication with people in Pullman goes; we had no cell phones, no internet, no email. Long-distance phone calls cost a lot of money. As a 15-year-old, I had left my peer group of friends behind and making new friends in a foreign country can take time and patience, not something teenagers are known for.

So I wrote letters.

I wrote regularly to at least seven of my friends. I wrote to the boy I had been dating when I left home. I wrote to my grandmothers and my Aunt Mary. I wrote to my high school French teacher — in French!

I penned postcards from places we visited. I composed missives on aerogrammes made of lightweight blue paper designed for international post. Once, I found toilet paper — yes, I mean real, waxy paper from a public London toilet — and I look some sheets back to our flat and wrote a letter to my best friend Kathleen on them, just to express my horror that someone would expect a person to use that material on ones butt.

Of course, that was many years ago. Today, many people see letter writing as quaint and old fashioned. After all, we have the ability to immediately connect with people via text, email, social media and anytime calling! We can reach people pretty much at any time and any place that we so desire. Why would anybody ever bother writing a letter? Well, I would. Here are a few reasons I still love to write letters.

A letter has finite length. There’s only so much space on a page or in a card. In addition, you can’t hit the “back” key on a letter. If you write something on the page in ink, you must either cross it out, throw the entire document away or live with what you wrote. This means you have to be thoughtful about what you write. You have to decide what merits communicating. You have to edit yourself before you begin, to think about the most important things you want to say in advance of saying them.

Another aspect of these constraints: They force you to focus on the recipient. If I only have a little space, what do I wish to convey to the person? What might they be interested to know? What has happened since I last wrote or talked to her? What has been her most recent state of mind? When I sit down to write, thinking about these questions makes me feel connected to the person I’m writing to. I can visualize them, hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away, reading my letter days from now, possibly smiling at the same words that made me smile when I placed them on paper.

You hold letters and cards in your hand, the paper smooth or crinkly against your fingers. Letters can be written in cards with evocative photos or art work on the cover, or on different colors and types of stationary. You can send little trinkets, such as pressed flowers or herbs, in between pages. You can bundle letters together and save them to savor at another time. It’s a different experience from receiving a missive on your device, which quickly joins the thousands of other items in your phone or iPad.

I don’t write letters nearly as often as I did in London in 1982. But when I do, it still evokes the same satisfaction, happiness and connection that it did so long ago and reminds me that I will probably never dispense with the pleasure of writing letters.

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The perils and perks of picking blackberries

Summertime in the Inland Empire means days so hot the moisture evaporates leaving behind oven-like breezes. Back in the 70s, it also meant my mom would load my sister and I up in the back of our ’66 Dodge Dart and point it into the countryside to look for blackberries.

Blackberry picking takes grit. The brambles scratch your arms and thorns prick your fingers as you grasp at the fruit. The sun beats down from on high, making every clothed inch of your body sweat and the parts that aren’t covered feel burnt in seconds. You must watch out for bees, which also love blackberries, for sometimes they alight on a ripe one and, heavy and drunk from its juice, have trouble flying away as your fingers descend. Birds may dive bomb from the bright blue cloudless sky as you plunder their favorite snack.

Once when picking blackberries in Arkansas, I returned home to find a platoon of chiggers had attacked my legs, leaving behind angry, itchy, red welts in perverse polka dots across my calves. I spent a week rubbing salve on my shins.

Blackberry picking also takes patience, something a youngster eager to taste the fruits of her labor sometimes lacks. You can’t judge the ripeness of a blackberry merely by its color, although if there is any red left at all it is not ripe. To find a truly ripe, melt-in-your-mouth blackberry, you must invite it to drop into your fingers with a gentle tug. If it does not willingly fall into your palm, it is not ripe, and you should move on.

At first I did not grasp this concept, and so I grasped the berries to eagerly. If I popped one of the unripe specimens into my mouth, I would get an unexpected crunch and a sour taste that let me know it wasn’t ready. I’d pucker my lips and move on.

But when I found the ripest, most luscious berry and bit into it, a sweet-tart taste like I had never experienced burst on my tongue. The smell of it, the feel of its warm softness in my mouth and the flavor combined to make the moment unforgettable. I wanted more.

I began to pick my target berries with more care, and to pull them more tentatively. Soon I also learned that the gentle grasp worked best with the ripe berries — if I grabbed with too much force, they would disintegrate between my fingers, leaving nothing behind but liquid and seeds.

As I continued to learn from bitter experience and loss, I began to develop a gathering rhythm. I could spot a dark orb beneath a leaf and guess its ripeness with one look, or pick out the ripe berry from a nest of dark ones. My fingers began to sense the right amount of pressure and pull. More and more, I heard the satisfying “plunk” of berries as they landed in my bucket.

Pretty soon, or perhaps a few hours later, we would return to the Dart, rubbing the sweat off our faces with purple-stained fingers and aching, scratched arms. I seem to recall that my sister and I would fall asleep on the way home, lulled by the car tires on the highway.

Although all these years later I still love blackberries and occasionally get them at the store, the experience leaves a lot to be desired. Blackberries taste best when eaten within a few hours of their plucking from the bush.

So I’m thrilled to live along a trail that has rows of blackberries. A few weeks ago, the bushes sported a white veil of flowers, and now light green globes sit in bunches atop the dark green leaves.

I can’t wait to get out there under the hot sun once more.

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Tanzania then and now

Landing at the air strip at an airport near Arusha, Tanzania, I did not know what to expect on our 12-day photo safari. The itinerary outlined where my mother and I and our companions would go, with beautiful names laid out in flat black and white letters on a page: The African Tulip, Tarangire, Serengeti, Ndutu, Ngorongoro Crater. These word did not prepare me for the wonders of our journey.

I did not anticipate the heady smell of tropical flowers that greeted us when we opened the car doors at our hotel that first night, or the musicality of Swahili and the laughter of children playing in the neighborhood. The sounds of insects cut brightly through the night. The first morning, upon opening the window, birds calling in a foreign language greeted my ears, reminding me we were far from home.

Growing up in the western United States, I have visited some of the most pristine wilderness that America has to offer. I’ve hiked the mountains in eastern Oregon, the Northern Cascades and the Olympic Mountains. I’ve been to one of the places with the most wildlife left in the continental U.S., Yellowstone National Park, where I saw buffalo, elk, deer, moose, bear, snow geese, otter, beaver, eagles and more.

So when we arrived in Arusha and started on our trip, I expected that it might be similar to Yellowstone. We would see some animals, at a distance, if we were lucky. My hope was to see at least one lion, at a distance, if we were lucky.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see such an abundance of wildlife and wilderness.

After leaving Arusha and arriving in the national parks, most of the time when the vehicle stopped to look at animals, no human-made noise marred the landscape. The still air allowed us to hear the sounds of an elephant’s footfalls, the low purr of a lion, the fighting call of impala.

The animals we saw weren’t on display. They lived their lives before us while we watched from a distance. Herds of hippos sleeping in a pond. A group of male impala chasing each other to compete for mating rights. Wildebeest migrating across the Serengeti, which means “endless plain.” Zebra barking dog-like warnings at one another. Bat-eared foxes stalking their prey.

We saw hyenas, jackals, lions, leopards, cheetahs, hartebeest, gazelles, eland, crocodiles, Cape buffalo, black rhinos, mongoose, chameleons, lizards, monitor lizards, giraffes, baboons, vervet monkeys, dik diks, hyrax, leopard turtles and warthogs.

At night, from our perch in a Land Rover, we saw a bush baby, a genet, a spring hare, porcupine and a pride of 16 lions that included four cubs.

And the birds! My god, the birds. There were big, brassy birds such as ostrich and marabou storks, secretary birds, African crowned cranes and Kory bustards. There were birds of prey like the tawny eagle, the African fish eagle and water birds like the Nile geese. There were small jewels like the hornbill, the oxpeckers, the lilac-breasted roller. There were birds with interesting names, like the red and yellow barbet.

Our first taste of the adventure that awaited us came when we arrived at Tarangire National Park and drove through the gates. I scanned the savannah, looking for wildlife. Finally, someone spotted an elephant off in the distance, walking through the golden grass. Seeing this animal moving freely in the wilderness brought tears to my eyes. I remember thinking that if I saw no other animals the whole trip, that that one glimpse of an elephant was enough to justify the days-long journey to get there.

Not long after that, we saw another elephant a little closer. Then another one even closer. Finally, we saw one this close:

I held my breath as I gazed at this beautiful creature. I could feel my heart pulsing. I could hear the elephant’s steps and breath and the flapping ears. In the meantime, the elephant proceeded about his business as if we didn’t exist.

This encounter preceded almost two weeks of nonstop wonder. I will share what I can with you here, and I will try to do justice to the awe-inspiring sense of this place.

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Finding the words, finding my voice

I posted a piece a few weeks ago, a letter to my 25-year-old self. I got some very positive feedback from people. The only person I didn’t receive positive feedback from was me.

It took me several weeks before I could bring myself to hit the “post” button.

“Who cares about your 25-year-old self?” A voice said.

“No one will be interested,” another voice said.

“There are so many more important things going on in the world right now,” chimed in a third voice.

All of these voices live in my head, of course.

I thought about posting the piece several times, but I didn’t. Then I thought about posting it but not sharing it on social media; that way no one would see it, and therefore wouldn’t notice that it sucked.

But then I heard a story on NPR about a poet. He read his poem out loud, a deceptively simple poem, and then told the interviewer that the poem reflected his thought process and explained it with simplicity. I was enchanted and inspired.

“That’s just what I’m trying to do with my writing,” I thought.

So I decided to go ahead and post the blog. The Voices of Doubt tried to chime in, but I silenced them.

“Who are you!?” I shouted at them, “And why do you think my work is not worthy of sharing?”

The voices skittered away into the shadows. I pulled up my story, read through it, made a few edits and posted it. Soon after, I gathered up courage and posted it on my Facebook page.

The Voices of Doubt crept back into my brain.

“You could have talked more about this and it would have been a better piece,” one whispered.

“Why did you mention that particular event and not another one? This is crap,” another asked.

“It could have been so much better,” the third voice admonished.

I’m working hard not to listen to them.

I don’t know how these voices became lodged in my psyche. I have no recollection of welcoming them in, or of a particular time or incident where someone said any of these things to me. Although at times in my life I have felt silenced, and my nightmares often revolve around having no voice, the origins of these feelings remain obscure. I’m working on fighting them, but they remain strong.

Frankly, the voices doubt that you will ever read this, which speaks to the vulnerability I feel every time I put myself out there. But. I will not cave in to their demands. They will not silence me.

Which is exactly why I will brush the Voices of Doubt from my hair and post this: My words, my voice.

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Dear Younger Me

Dear Younger Me,

I am standing outside the apartment building in Washington, D.C., where you lived 27 years ago. You had just turned 25, and you were young and married and looking for your first job. You had been working in D.C. for about nine months, in internship positions. You had two cats in the small, two-bedroom apartment on the right-hand side of the second-floor walk-up in this unassuming white building just off of Dupont Circle.

You were unsure about a lot of things.

What will my job be like? Where will we live? When should we have children? And the ever-present: What if I’m no good at my job, at my relationships, at life? Everything felt so up in the air, so uncertain. You felt scared and exhilarated at the same time. The possibilities seemed endless, including the possibilities of failure.

I’m standing here, 27 years later, thinking about what I would tell you if I could meet you today.

Would I tell you that everything has worked out, that you are happily married with a grown son, engaging in a satisfying career that has taken you to places you could never have imagined all those years ago? That you have lived in Arkansas and Florida and California and forged unforgettable friendships in all three places?

Would I tell you that many things will be a lot harder than you could ever have known as you gazed from that second-story window? Would I tell you that, three years from now, you will lose your father when he drops dead of a cardiac arrhythmia? That a few years after that you will struggle with your health and spend time bedridden and in a wheelchair? That eventually you will divorce the father of your child, the man you lived with in that second-story apartment? Would I tell you that sometimes work won’t work out?

Would I tell you that even with all of this, your life will be richer than you ever could have imagined?

Would I tell you that your struggles will make you a stronger woman, that every single tear you shed will add up to the person you are today?

Would I tell you that you will learn to ride the rhythms of uncertainty with grace? That one day you will recognize that you only ask the question “What if I’m no good?” When you are about to stretch and grow and learn?

Would I tell you that sometimes your seeming failures create a stairway to success?

Would I tell you all of these things?

Or perhaps, instead, I would put my arms around you and simply let you experience the marvelous, mysterious uncertainty of your future.

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False eyelashes and failure

I do a few things pretty well. I’m a good baker. I’m a good dancer. Occasionally I can turn a good phrase. I crack witty puns — okay, some people might disagree with the with the witty puns. But my point is that I’m skilled in certain areas due to many years of practice.

But lately, as my dancing skills have improved, I’ve been able to perform on stage with dance troupes. And that has required learning a new skill — putting on stage makeup.

In general, I wear very little makeup. In fact, I would prefer to go makeup-free at all times. My face has rarely seen foundation, and I have yet to find a lipstick I really like. Learning to use stage makeup now is made more complicated by the fact that I am a Woman of a Certain Age, which, translated, means that I can’t read any makeup labels without the assistance of a magnifying glass to accompany my reading glasses. Plus, when I take my glasses off to apply eye makeup, I can’t tell if I’m drawing in a smoky eye or a clown face. It might have been easier if I had started experimenting with makeup when I was a teenager, but that ship sailed more than 30 years ago.

However, when I dance, I want to represent the troupe well when we’re on stage. And on stage, if you are not wearing lots of makeup, your face becomes invisible. So when the opportunity to take a workshop arose, I seized the day in an attempt to learn a little more about how to put on stage makeup.

We were told to bring our makeup kits, a hand-held mirror, a note pad and a pen to the workshop. I found the note pad and pen easily enough. I had a small thing of eye shadow of indeterminate age, an eye pencil, mascara, an eyelash curler and a lipstick I tried once for a previous performance. I bought the hand-held mirror at CVS on my way to the workshop.

The workshop leader, a skilled performer and make-up artist, introduced herself and then said, “first take out your primer.”

Primer? I looked around blankly. A few veteran dancers pulled out a tube of the liquid in question. The workshop leader saw me and a few others gazing at her with wide eyes and explained that using primer on your face allows the foundation to go on smoothly and holds the makeup on your face, even when you sweat. Foundation? She smiled, made the rounds and gave those of us who had no primer a small daub on the backs of our hands. We smoothed it on our faces.

We continued layering with foundation, concealer, contour, translucent powder — none of which I owned. I watched the workshop leader as she expertly donned each layer, and then she or another makeup maven would share with those of us who were lacking the right items. After a few layers, I looked in the mirror at my own work and sighed. Too little of this and too much of that.

I reminded myself that Rome wasn’t built in a day — and that my made-up face would not be either. I continued gamely on.

We learned how to fill in our eyebrows to create a certain shape and line our lips to do the same. We layered on eyeliner and different shades of eyeshadow to create a smoky eye. We blended the foundation and concealer into our faces and layered on the blush. Other women at the workshop used their various brushes to paint on the differently colored layers. I used a q-tip and my fingers. Where would one even get so many brushes? Many of these women had a dozen makeup brushes. I wasn’t sure what exactly to do with one.

At the end of the workshop, we had a photo shoot. My artistry was not up to DaVinci standards — it was more like paint-by-numbers. But the makeup looked good from a distance and I was pleased with the results, it being the first time. I thanked the workshop instructor, left the class, and set about moving from Florida to California.

Fast forward about four months. I’m dancing with a new troupe in California, and we are performing at a fundraiser. Our choreographer and leader suggests a cherry smoky eye and contour makeup. Come to the venue ready with your makeup on, she says.

Time to deploy what I have learned.

I go to Target and an employee, a young woman with green hair and fabulous stage-ready makeup, helps me find the things I need. Blush, brushes, contour, concealer, an eyeshadow palette all find their way into my house. I have four makeup brushes now! I’m still not sure what all of them are for.

I practice a few days before the big event. I open the eyeshadow palette and discover, to my dismay, that the colors have descriptive adjectives instead of names. Do I want to wear “chatty” or “cozy?” “Flirty” or “amorous?” Whatever happened to amber, teal, cherry and brown? I sigh and get on with practice. Each time I get a little better. Except for the dark lipstick, which is an unmitigated disaster. I go to wipe it off of my lips, and instantly the whole area around my mouth becomes dark red. I look like a terrifying clown. The makeup remover wipes bleed dark red as I swipe them over my lips again and again. Good thing it’s practice! Note to self — dark red lip color, not good.

Days later, it’s finally time to dance, and I must put the stage makeup on for our performance. I place all my new tools on the counter before me and take a deep breath. I prime. I brush, I blend. I contour. I blend some more. I create a smoky eye. I look at myself in the mirror. It’s all looking really good. I feel a rush of pride.

Now it’s time to put on the false eyelashes.

Hmmm. I haven’t done that in a while.

I squeeze a tiny bit of glue onto the lower rim of the false lashes. A bit of glue leaks on to the lashes, and I try to flick it off, but instead it smears into the lashes. Maybe it will be all right, I think, and I close my eye, trying to apply the lashes just over the lash line.

I squint with my open eye to see what I am doing. I line it up and press down…and miss. I try again and miss, again.

Five seconds later, my eye makeup smeared, the false eyelashes still in my fingers, I realize that I have glued my left eyelid to itself.

Unfortunate words spew from my mouth as I try to flick the glue-laden lashes from my fingers so I can liberate my eyelid from itself. I gape briefly at the mirror and see that I’m less Glamour Barbie and more a cast member in Monsters, Inc. Not exactly the look I’m going for.

I sigh.

A few gallons of water and makeup remover later, I have freed my eyelid, but my eyes look like something you might see on Halloween, or in your nightmares. So I start over, bring it back to something close to a smoky eye — a misty eye, perhaps.

I forgo the false eyelashes. I succumb to the failure. Those are a lesson for another time.

I have to remind myself that this is only the second or third time I’ve ever used stage makeup. So eyelid-gluing aside, I’m probably not doing so bad.

In fact, if I keep at it for another 30 years, I might become an expert. And hopefully, sometime during those three decades, I might learn how to keep the glue off my eyelids and on the eyelashes. One thing is certain: I will never become good at stage makeup — or anything else — if I don’t try. You have to start somewhere, and that means lots of tries and fails. Practice may not make perfect, but one day I hope to create a passable smoky eye along with beautiful lashes.

My epic, eyelid-gluing moment reminded me that the only people who never fail are those who don’t try anything. So the next time I have the opportunity to put on stage makeup, or write an essay, or try something new, I’ll do my best not to let the fear of failure get in the way.

Here’s a successful moment with the false eyelashes. There’s no photographic evidence from the failures.

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The Tree

Every now and then when I am outdoors walking down a random path, a branch will catch my eye and remind me of my Tree.

I haven’t seen this particular tree in almost 45 years. I remember few things about the catastrophic illness that nearly took my life, and it is possible that the tree I remember never existed, that it represents a figment of my delirium-ridden imagination.

Thinking back to that time, at age seven, I experienced the hospital in much the same way that a feral animal might. I had no language or experience to explain what had happened to me. My body weak, I lay in a sterile, beige room full of metal and hard edges, with scary machines, industrial sounds and smells of sterile chemicals and disease. I slept a lot in between blood draws and painful tests, occasional visitors and meals. But sometimes I found myself alone in a small sterile room with a window that looked out upon a tree.

I don’t know where my hospital room was — I had been brought in semi-conscious and burning with fever and slipped further into delirium before coming awake in that strange and foreign place. There was nothing special about the room — hospital rooms look much the same today.

But the room had a window. And the window had a view of the sky and of the branch of a deciduous tree.

I don’t know what kind of tree it was, and it doesn’t really matter. I will be forever grateful to the people at Pullman Memorial Hospital who saved my life. But the Tree saved my spirit.

Through the branches of my Tree, I could see the sky changing from black to gray to the blue of day. I knew when a cloud obscured the sunshine, and when it left to reveal the sunlight. I could sometimes see mist obscuring the leaves of the Tree.

Such an amazing Tree! The branches danced gloriously in the breeze, leaves trembling to and fro. I could imagine the sound the wind made as it blew by. I watched rain gently push on the leaves and recalled the smell of a fall rain storm.

All of this I could conjure up from gazing at my Tree.

Watching that small piece of sky and the edge of a tree, I could remember all that I loved about the outdoors, about the world, about life. As I gazed at my Tree, I recalled climbing trees, reading beneath trees, hiking through trees, all memories of a happier time.

I could not understand, sometimes I could not even believe what was happening to me in the hospital — my body weak, wracked with pain and infection, the added pain of physical therapy required to recover. It felt like I had been in the hospital for ages — and I feared that perhaps I would be there forever. After all, I was at the age where “Are we there yet?” was the classic phrase for an hour-long car ride. I had no words for the tsunami of emotions I felt with every added insult to injury. I sometimes fell into despair, as I felt as if the misery of the hospital would never end.

But when I looked out the window at my Tree, it served as an anchor, a possibility, a goal. I will get to see the outdoors again, I told myself. I will not only see the trees, but I will experience them. I couldn’t wait to get outside and hear the wind, feel its breath upon my cheek and smell the crispy dryness of fall leaves descending from the sky.

The day I left the hospital, a nurse bundled me up in a big blanket, nestled my weakened body into a wheelchair, and my parents accompanied us as she pushed me through the corridors and out the sliding glass doors.

The cool wind whirled past my ears and kissed my forehead. The leaves swirled and a small breeze grazed the skin on top of my foot between the blanket and the slipper. I wept with happiness.

And more than four decades later, I sometimes catch a glimpse of a certain Tree out of the corner of my eye. That’s enough, along with the smells and the wind on my face, to take me back to that little girl in the hospital bed looking out of her window, watching her Tree. The memory of her takes my breath away and fills my eyes with tears of gratitude.

I am here, with your Tree, I tell her. We made it.

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My one-word theme for 2019

Explore.

It’s my one-word theme for 2019.

When I heard on Gretchen Rubin’s podcast, Happier, that she and her sister choose a one-word theme for the year every year, I didn’t think I could do it. How could I choose one word out of all the possibilities across several languages? I’m a word NERD. I consume words for breakfast, lunch and dinner — and dessert. And afternoon tea as well.

But as they spoke, my word for 2019 appeared in my brain: Explore. And as I listened to the rest of the podcast, the word swirled around in my my head.

I set the word aside for the work day and returned to it later in the evening in a conversation with my dear friend Kim. After we talked, I knew for certain it was the right word for the year, and possibly for longer than that. I woke up at 6 a.m. the next day, on the weekend, ideas bubbling up in my brain. I got up to write them all down.

I have a few, obvious explorations in the horizon. I live in a new town in a new state surrounded by new things to explore — simple enough. And at the end of January, my mom and I travel halfway across the world to Tanzania to explore a country we have never seen before — exciting!

But exploration can also happen closer to home, or even in the home. Finding new recipes. Trying new foods. Our local farmer’s market teems with fruits and vegetables both familiar and unknown, ripe for exploration. I can explore new worlds and ideas through the books I read. I can explore my friendships, both by making new friends here in California and seeking ways to keep in touch with my existing friends who live far away.

Then, of course, there’s the exploration of the mind. How do I feel? What are my most cherished hopes and dreams? What will my imagination bring me today?

Exploration does not have to be Lewis and Clark on their expedition to the West. Sometimes it’s a kitten tentatively extending a tiny paw to touch an unfamiliar object. Exploring thoughts, feelings, writing, the inner world as well as the outer — this speaks to the life I hope to lead in 2019.

Explore.

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The mountain’s perspective

After a heartbreaking Friday where I made the difficult decision to put Tidbit, my cat of 16 years, to sleep, I needed solace. I needed a reminder of the vastness of the universe, and how it comes and goes without paying attention to my grief or my needs.

I needed the mountains.

I rose before dawn and put on my hiking clothes and trail shoes. Filled the Nalgene bottles and stashed food and extra clothing in my day pack. Put the leash and harness on Shadow, tucked us both in the car and drove towards dawn.

I cried as the clouds changed colors in the coming sunrise. I thought of how Tidbit would sit on the back porch for hours, feeling the breeze ruffle her fur and listening to birds singing in the trees.

I headed to nature, because nature always soothes me, even if it doesn’t have all the answers.

The parking lot at the trailhead still had spaces. The air contained a chill, as the sun had not yet crested the surrounding peaks to bring its warming light. But the air tasted crisp and clean and the craggy rocks beckoned.

The trail started rocky and steep and I soon forgot my sorrow as I concentrated on staying upright. Shadow scampered ahead, leaping up rocks with the energy of a young dog while I followed at a more stately pace.

Both of us were breathless from the altitude change, so I made sure to pause frequently as we ascended the stone stairway to Eagle Lake. And when I paused, my breath disappeared even further into the beauty of the day, those mountains, the trees, the rocks, the colors.

All around me there was life and death. Tiny birds and chipmunks darted through the forest. Brown leaves fell off of aspen and larch. The dried up trunks of expired pines sometimes reached towards the sky, sometimes lay trailside. And all of it — the dead trees, the leaf litter, the barren branches — all of it looked beautiful. And we are all a part of it — plants and animals and even the mountains and lakes themselves. Everything in nature has its time and place to live and die, including Tidbit and me.

You could see history writ large on the mountain slopes, rock thrust up from below, then scarred by glaciers and knocked to rubble by snow. Ages and eras of change, adding up to a timeline upon which I barely appear.

As I hiked and gazed around me, I felt awed and small and soothed, all at once. I sat on a boulder overlooking Eagle Lake and wrote about Tidbit and her small life and how she meant so much in my small life, surrounded by the majesty of the natural world in all its glory.

After that, we turned back and descended the trail, back to the car, back home to loss. My grief has not abated, but I carry the perspective of my day in the mountains within.

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Half-century mark

I turned 50 in 2017, so it seems fitting to reflect on existing for a half-century on this tiny planet in our vast universe.

I’ve always felt very fortunate and grateful to be alive, because at the age of seven, no one thought I was going to make it to eight. One day I was playing on the playground at school, and a week later I lay fevered and delirious in a hospital room, and everything that was wrong with me had the potential to kill me: I had meningitis, osteomyelitis, sepsis and soon after a deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. In 1974, the odds were heavily stacked against my survival in a small-town hospital in rural America. The doctor who saved my life, Dr. Duffy, always refused to take credit, citing a miracle instead.

My near-lethal illness came on swiftly and suddenly, out of nowhere. At age seven I couldn’t comprehend what had happened, and was terrified it would happen again. I didn’t dare to imagine what I wanted to be when I grew up, because I wasn’t sure I was going to grow up.

I took it one day at a time, recovering bit by bit, my determination carrying me along the way. Because I knew that life could be yanked away at any time, I resolved to live every moment as if it could be my last.

The half century hits home for me in another way as well. At 50, I am the same age that my mother was when my father died at age 54. I feel the loss almost as keenly as I did 23 years ago, because now that I’m that age, I understand exactly how young he really was when we lost him.

So for many reasons, making it to 50 felt like a personal triumph, and wanted to make the year a remarkable one, a gift to my 7-year-old self and a tribute to my parents.

So I traveled to Europe, twice. My husband and I visited Paris and Normandy. Then my son and I took an epic hiking trip around Mont Blanc, putting my physical limits to the test. I learned a completely new style of dance, flamenco, and got to perform with an amazing group of women. I deepened several important friendships. I spent some wonderful time with my family and friends in Seattle and North Carolina. My husband and I adopted a beautiful rescue dog.

And I started a blog.

The year has been challenging in several ways, with unexpected losses. These valleys form part of life’s landscape, and while I acknowledge the challenges they bring, I will not reside forever there, choosing instead to do the hard work of climbing up from the valleys to seek out the peaks. The view is amazing from up there, and yet you can see the beauty and utility of the valleys. I understand that without the valleys, the peaks have less meaning.

I look forward to seeing what this decade brings.

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Beach time

Bare feet sink in the sand. Small grains fall over toes. The air thunders with crashing waves in a timeless rhythm. An occasional seagull cry cuts across the cerulean sky.

Shells pepper the line between sand and sea. Small shells, large, shells, brightly colored shells bleached shells; the small jewels rock back and forth as the shallow water licks them. Shells with different shapes, shells of different patterns, small clues to the world lying just off shore beneath the water.

Each shell tells a story. A prized large fluted shell brings to mind its recent occupant. What creature did it house? Was there more than one? How long did it live? How old did it become? Where did it live before the empty shell found its way to this very beach?

Many people spend their beach combing time looking for the perfect, intact she. But I am fascinated by the broken bits strewn at the border of seawater and sand. Broken shells reveal their interiors, a glimpse of the life that once lived inside. Pink, orange, purple, white, black tan — the diversity of colors, sizes and patterns hints at the life teeming in the sea.

Even broken, the shell fragments retain a beauty and utility of their own. Born from the sea, they slowly dissolve in the surf until they become part of the sand on the shore. Nothing goes to waste in sand, sea and sky.

I find myself comforted in the face of this impermanence, constant change and beauty in every step.

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I’ll always have Paris

I don’t remember falling in love with Paris. My memories of my family’s first visit to the city faded long ago, for it was 40 years ago. I’ve heard stories of snooty waiters who looked down their noses at us because we spoke no French, and I’ve seen photos of my mom, my sister and I in front of the Eiffel Tower and a few naughty statues, giggling and wearing chunky down coats and brightly colored knit hats that mark us as Americans as if we were wearing big neon signs.

A74AB083-C2EB-4DDA-9547-D3AC905A33CFBut soon after that, I chose French over Spanish in middle school, perhaps because of our trip there. I began to learn the rudiments of the language: “Nous allons a La Place d’Italie a Paris” is a phrase I recall from that very fist class in seventh grade.

I took an intensive French course the summer after my freshman year in high school, and it changed my life in many ways. I learned to overcome my shyness, to speak up and be heard and to have confidence in myself. I also learned that I had a knack for the language. I took an advanced course my sophomore year of high school and during my junior year, when we once again planned a trip to Paris, my delighted parents had me call the hotels and make reservations. This was long before the era of cell phones and data plans, and transactions between two countries were expensive, so I nervously felt the stakes were high. I managed to both understand and be understood, and once again we headed to the City of Light.

This time, we paddled small boats on the Bois de Boulonge. I bought a designer jacket at a secondhand shop and a red bikini by Pierre Cardin at a large store. We sipped chocolat chaud at cafes and watched the world go by. We strolled beside the Seine and through intimate, ancient neighborhoods. We looked at storefronts and ate delicious meals and bought baguettes and cheese and fresh fruit from neighborhood markets and ate them on park benches under flowering trees bursting with color. We visited art museums and historic sites.

E0567BE3-E03F-4A46-B10A-F0668FDB4644I was hooked.

I continued my affair with the French language in college. I lived in French House my freshman year and my roommate was a native French speaker. My accent and fluency began to improve. I worked in food service in college and saved my money, and in January of 1987 I made my way back to Paris. I stayed in the Quartier Latin. I spent almost a week there on my own, conversing with French waiters and shopkeepers and walking everywhere.

I was in love. With a city.

Then came the poverty of graduate school, the commitments of a job, a marriage and a child. Paris faded into the background, a faraway dream of my youth.

Until one, shortly after my divorce, when I rifled through through a bunch of old papers and came across a dog-eared report card from my French teacher, Mademoiselle Langevin. She had been my hardest teacher, and I had been proud to earn a “B” in her class.

“She has the makings of a good linguist,” she wrote.

Her words launched a flood of memories of narrow streets and open-air cafes, of small dogs and busy commuters, of flowering trees and brightly lit boulevards.

“I want to go back,” I thought. And so I saved money for a few years and traveled to Paris with my mom and my 10-year-old son Emile.

We did all the things that a 10-year-old boy might enjoy. We visited the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. We saw the Egyptian section of the Louvre. We ate crepes and baguettes and cheese and chocolate. We drank Orangina. We walked and we took the Metro. We wandered through the neighborhood park near our hotel and ate fresh pastries every morning.

A few years later, I enrolled in graduate school in French literature. And in middle school, Emile began to study French in earnest. He learned to read and write and speak pretty well.

In 2011, I decided to take him back over spring break of his junior year in high school to celebrate his impending graduation. We ate pastries in the mornings. He had brought his roller blades, so I rented a bicycle and he put on his skates and we toured the city for five hours on wheels. We wandered through the tiny back streets of the Marais, where Parisians were out taking their Sunday walks. We bought two fresh oranges and ate them on the steps of a church, listening to the organ rumble inside. We headed to the Place des Voges, a square surrounded by buildings dating back to the 1500s with a park in the middle and cafes lining the outside. We headed to the Quartier Latin and stopped at a creperie, then stopped at a square to eat our crepes and listen to an old man play a portable piano as neighborhood children danced before him on the cobblestones.

More recently, in fact this year, my husband and I celebrated our 10th anniversary with a trip to Paris. We stayed in an airbnb just one block from Notre Dame on the Isle de la Cite. We could hear the cathedral bells chime every morning.

Curt had recently earned a degree in history, so while I showed him many of my favortie things about the city, to my delight our trip focused a good deal on places I had never been. We visited the museum at l’Ecole Militaire, where we saw an excellent exhibit on World War I and a stunning collection of armor from the early Middle Ages to the 17th century. We went to the Hotel de Ville, where Marie Antoinette and many other people were incarcerated before their executions during the French Revolution. Seeing these and other historical sites reminded me that much of the wealth of the Paris elite had been redistributed to the government following the revolution, and also that Paris had the dubious fortune of being invaded early during World War II, so its historic sites survived intact.

4904EB24-4F98-4E51-8EDC-8D8BE4044309We saw a Rodin exhibit in honor of the 100th anniversary of his death. We had planned to go to the Musee Rodin, but in a very French way we found out by a small sign at the door that there was a strike that day and the museum was closed.

I’m grateful  that I had the opportunity to travel as a child, to see other cultures and understand that my way is not the only way, and sometimes not even the best way. I’ve traveled many places since childhood and lived abroad as well, and seen many amazing, exotic and exciting cities. But when I visit Paris, it is like coming home.

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An ordinary day

My father would have been 77  this week, but he passed away almost 23 years ago when he was 54. The suddenness and swiftness of his death left the whole family bereft, and we still miss him.

Although he died relatively young, my father did a great many things, and some of those things I got to do with him. One time, we took a father-daughter trip to Idaho to work on the Lewis and Clark trail. My dad, an amateur history buff, had read the original journals, and he regaled me with tales of their experiences as we huffed and puffed our way through trail maintenance during the day. At night, we camped with the other trail workers at No-see-um Meadows, ate ravenously and fell into a deep sleep.

One day he and I were on our own on a section of the trail above the Selway-Bitterroot River. My father told me that at this point Lewis and Clark had run into severe difficulty; hostile native Americans prevented them from walking along the river where they could have access to precious water and game. Instead, they trudged along the ridge line where we stood, running low on food an supplies. The Bitterroot Mountains seemed to go on forever. In their journals, they wrote that they were considering turning around and heading east.

But somewhere along this trail, my dad told me, a scout found a break in the trees and the mountains gave way to the flat, fertile plains beyond. They found their way to food and water,  so they eventually could continue on to the Pacific Ocean. It proved to be a pivotal moment for the expedition.

We cleared trail and walked along, my father slightly ahead. I heard him shout for me to come see him, and I headed up the trail to where he stood, looking west. Through the dark evergreens I could see the yellow plains laid out below, a river snaking through them. We had found the very spot where, 190 years previously, Lewis and Clark had stood, staring, coming to the realization that their expedition could continue.

It was a peak moment.

But if I could have my dad back just for a day, that would not be the one I would pick.

I would pick an ordinary day.

On an ordinary day, my dad would get up and go for a run. He might run three miles, he might run five. He would come home, shower, and get dressed in khaki pants and a button-down shirt with a pocket and a handkerchief.

He would walk upstairs to the kitchen and pull out the Cheerios and milk. He’d sit at the dining room table, and a cat might jump on his lap as he read a book or the newspaper and ate his Cheerios.

He would walk to his office on campus, sometimes with mom, sometimes on his own. He would work for several hours, stopping now and then to talk to my mom or his office neighbor and best friend. Then he and my mom and their colleagues would go to lunch at the union. They would talk and laugh, and people would probably groan a few times at my dad’s silly jokes.

My dad and mom would come home, and he might go out and mow the lawn, or frown at the dandelions growing amid the grass and head for the garage to get some weed killer. If the weather was nice, he might sit on the outside patio with a beer and a book before dinner, or if it was snowing he might make up a fire in the fireplace.

He and my mom would eat dinner, then clean up after, listening to NPR. Then they might visit a neighbor or get a little more work done. Then finally my dad and mom would head to bed.

If my dad could have just one more day, one ordinary day, I wouldn’t even have to be there, at home with him. It would be enough just to know that he was there, that he was happy, that he was in the world.

Just an ordinary day.

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On running

I wake up at dawn, put on a t-shirt and shorts and double-knot my running shoes. I step into the clear morning air and listen to the birds chime the first welcome of the day.

I start slowly, allowing my limbs to shed the last bits of sleep. Then I fall into a rhythm. My steps match my breath, which matches the swing of my arms, which matches the bounce of my body as I move it back and forth, up and down.

I fine-tune the speed of my steps depending upon the terrain. If I’m heading uphill, the steps become longer, and slower, my breathing deeper, and I use my arms forcefully to propel myself. If I’m heading down a slope, my steps become gentler to protect my knees. I bring my arms close to my body to move efficiently.

In this way, I can run for hours, for miles. I’ve competed in 10 K races. I ran Bloomsday, a 7.5-mile race in Spokane. And I run just for the fun of it, anywhere I can. What I love about running is that it requires nothing more than a pair of good shoes and my body, all in working order.

When I run, I sway to and fro, my body in synchrony with itself and with my path. I feel a rush of adrenalin, the endorphins of a runner’s high. The landscape races by in vivid colors and I feel the air cooling my skin, wicking away the sweat as I move through the day, at one with the world. When I am done, I feel as if I have been in flight, soaring over a great landscape, and the feeling of bliss stays with me for hours.

At least, that is how I remember running. I gave it up 27 years ago.

And I still miss it.

On the day I gave up running, the doctor gave me a grim look as I lay shivering in a flowered hospital gown on a gurney at the emergency room. He had examined the veins in my right leg and saw a tangled mess of damaged material that would never heal. He told me that if I continued to run, I might not be able to walk by the time I was 40. It wasn’t a chance I wanted to take at 23, so I put up my running shoes for good.

Do I miss running? Absolutely every day. I have found other things that I enjoy in place of running: I walk, I hike and I dance. But they are not quite the same. About 10 years ago, elliptical trainers came into fitness gyms and I could almost recreate the feeling of a run.

Almost.

I try to remind myself that running had terrible drawbacks. Getting to the point of the runner’s high requires going through a lot of lows at the start. There are abdominal cramps and charley horses. When you first start running, your lungs suck air in giant, wheezy gasps as if you’ve been smoking for a decade. You risk shin splints, arthritis and other aches and pains. Some days, you get started and within five minutes, you think: “This is too much. I quit.”

But you keep going.

Because in the end, you know that the reward will be worth it.

Although I gave up running almost three decades ago, I held on to some of the most important premises of the discipline. Push yourself to your limits. Work hard. Don’t let a little unpleasantness stop you on your way to doing something meaningful.

Find your rhythm.

And don’t let a setback, even if you have to give up the very thing you love, take that rhythm away from you.

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TMB Part 11: The ladders and beyond

We had hiked 100 miles, and on this day, we would only hike about four more. But the trail guide suggested it would take us about three hours, all of it straight up another mountain.

And we would have to climb ladders.

I had seen images of the ladders – narrow, metal-runged contraptions rising vertically 30-40 feet up the side of a rock face. I had told myself not to worry about them – how bad could they be? Clearly people climb them on these hikes. But I have a healthy respect for – some might say a fear of – heights, and the very idea of the ladders left me slightly breathless.

Nevertheless, I persisted.

Before we even got to the ladders, there was plenty of steep terrain to hike, all of it up hill. We began at a steady, solid pace, finally taking a long break to read and pick blueberries.

When we arrived at the base of the first set of ladders, we took a few minutes to adjust our packs and mentally prepare. We put away our hiking poles. We checked our boot laces to be sure they would not trip us up. We snugged down all the straps on our packs. I went first.

I did not look down. I did not look out. I kept a laser focus on all of my limbs. I followed the “rule of three,” which means always have three appendages touching the ladder while moving the fourth one. Hand, hand, foot foot. Slow and steady. I made sure that my boots felt solid on the narrow rungs, and that my hands had a death grip on the metal higher up.

I triumphed over the ladders, and it was a good feeling to have faced the fear and done it anyway.

IMG_7662From there, we had only a few more uphill miles to Refuge Lac Blanc, our last destination on the trail before we completed the entire circuit. The lake is an easy day hike from Chamonix, and when we arrived, there were plenty of people visiting. The sun reflected its light in the aqua water and bounced off the snow on the mountaintops that faced us. We had omelettes and salads for lunch, plus we shared a blueberry tart that tasted as if they had plucked the blueberries from the trailside five minutes before putting them in the dessert.

Because our hike that day had been so short, we had plenty of time on our hands, so what else would we do but hike around the area? We felt light and airy without our packs, and jumped from rock to rock like mountain goats. After a few hours of exploration, we returned to the refuge for some hot chocolate and a little bit of reading.

IMG_7682Right before dinner, we had some excitement: An ibex, complete with giant horns, emerged from the mountain slopes and graced us with his presence as we watched from the window.

IMG_7688It was a perfect way to end a perfect last day on the trail.

 

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TMB Part 10: The Hustle

After passing back into France, we only had two nights left. We descended 3,000 feet into the top part of the Chamonix Valley to Tre-le-Champ and the Auberge de la Boerne, a small inn that looked as if it had been around for several hundred years. The auberge sported wooden beams, low ceilings and narrow passageways. We arrived minutes after a rather amusing moment where, after hours on the trail and in a moment of ambiguity as to our exact location, I had sighed, “I just want a sign of where we are.” Literally we looked to the left, and there was a small wooden placard nailed to a tree that read “Auberge de la Boerne” with an arrow pointing to the left. We laughed and headed to our evening haven.

IMG_7647The auberge sported a small outdoor patio with picnic tables, and we sat for a while in the sun with a glass of wine and waited for dinner with the other guests. As we sat and read books on our kindles, we watched a lean young calico cat hunting for mice along the side of the house. We had a seen a few cats at some of the other auberges – along with a few mice. Because of this, we removed all food from our packs each night so that no tiny creatures would chew their way through our equipment to get at edibles.

But on this night, we simply enjoyed watching the slender feline as she playfully jumped on and off of the roof and explored every nook and cranny of the garden. Eventually she wandered over to the picnic tables. She came and rubbed her head against our fingers and purred, and jumped up on the picnic bench next to us. Emile and I laughed and petted her, and then she moved on.

Dinner time came, and we soon forgot about the cat as we hungrily filled our plates and then our bellies with delicious food. Soon Emile and I became tired and headed upstairs to the dorm room for bed.

I opened the door, and there she was, on my pillow. The little calico had jumped through a dormer window that remained open above us and had cuddled up in the nook between my pillow and the comforter provided by the auberge. She looked like she had always belonged there, and I knew I’d been hustled. She had picked me out of the crowd as the person least likely to kick her out of the dorm room, and she had made a beeline for the bedclothes that belonged to me.IMG_7649

Emile and I discussed what to do. Should we shoo her out and close the window? But given that we were about to sleep in a room with about a dozen other people, most of whom had also been hiking for almost 10 days, we figured closing the window might not be a good idea. And if we didn’t close the window, our new feline friend would simply join us again, perhaps seeking out another unsuspecting victim.

So I tucked myself in beside her, and she snuggled into the crook of my neck and began to gently knead my shoulder. And although I’m sure the management would have looked askance at her transgression, I must confess that I had one of the best nights of sleep on the trail beside that little criminal.

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TMB Part 9: Peak experience

After two days of fog and rain with little to no visibility, we gladly welcomed the sunshine back. The town of Trient glowed in the morning as we marched through and down the road, once again to ascend up another mountainside. We found our way to Col de Balme, where we were rewarded with spectacular views of Mont Blanc and our first glimpse of the Chamonix Valley where we had started more than a week before. Our spirits, already high, lifted even higher with the realization of how far we had come and how much we had accomplished.

After a total hip replacement at age 46, I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to hike long distances again. I hoped that I would develop the strength and stamina to do so again. But I also knew from talking to the orthopedic surgeon that artificial joints have a limited lifespan: They usually tell people 15-20 years, which would take me to between 61 and 66. And people don’t usually do as well the second time around.

So I figured that I have a window of time. I’m optimistic that it will be longer than that, but I’m not going to sit around and wait to find out. Instead, I’m going to make the most of what I have today, right now.

IMG_7128Still, I wasn’t sure when we embarked on the trip that my hip would completely cooperate. I got in the best shape I knew how. I went on long hikes with my pack on.  I climbed stairs with my pack on. I took strength-training classes. I did squats and pushups.

And then I hoped for the best. We decided from the very beginning that we would take it one day at a time, and that if I could not complete the circuit, we were still in Europe, still together, still having the time of our lives.

Even with all the preparation and optimism, the first few days proved hard. There was breathlessness and vertigo. There was fatigue and doubt. There were moments where I had to take a deep breath and remind myself: “You can do this.”

IMG_7638But at that moment when we ascended over the Col to see the valley beneath us, I felt nothing but an incredible natural high. I stopped looking one step at a time and looked instead at how far we had come, and it felt amazing. I had taken my middle-aged body with its artificial hip and its post-phlebitic syndrome and its scars and wrinkles and signs of wear and tear, and I had pushed myself to attempt this journey. And here we were, nearly at its completion, celebrating the day, blue skies above and dramatic clouds tugging at the snow-capped mountain tops before us. It was a peak experience in all senses of the word.

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TMB Part 8: All things bovine

It was raining when we awoke at the Gite de Bon Abri. We ate breakfast, said our goodbyes and hit the trail once more in our rain gear. We had passed a few cows up to this point and they had always ignored us, choosing instead to focus on chewing their cuds. However, on this morning, our trail headed right next to a pasture containing three black cows with large horns. A small electric wire formed the “fence” betweeen us and the trio.

As we passed, one of the cows seemed to be interested. Very interested. He stomped his hoof and snorted, and we hurried by. A few moments later, we heard hoofs thundering and more snorting. We turned around to see the largest of the cows charging towards a lone hiker. It stopped short of the wire, but it scared us almost as much as the nearby hiker.

We began climbing higher out of Champex, and eventually rose into a cloud that had been caught by the mountain. A fine mist surrounded us. We tromped carefully on the moist trail, peering carefully ahead. An occasional bird call pierced the heavy silence of the fog. We could hear the occasional clanking of cow bells, but saw no more cows. An occasional hiker appeared ghostlike ahead of us out of the white fog, then disappeared soon after they passed by.

We knew the peak lay ahead of us — it was called Alp Bovine. According to the guide book, we would find a small refuge and farm on the trail side there. We kept walking in the mist and wondering if we would actually see the buildings, or if they would be lost to us in the mist.

We rounded a corner and saw the refuge ahead, and right along the trail stood three black cows with large horns. They were less than three feet from the trail. We stopped a moment to figure out what to do. The pre-trip package had included advice on what to do if confronted by a cow. At the time, that seemed amusing, but of course now I wished I had read that section a little more carefully. Finally, we decided to cautiously approach them, and we slipped by with no incident. No incident other than my pointing out to Emile that we literally saw cows on Alp Bovine, that is.

Shortly after Alp Bovine, we reached the highest point of the day, and after that we began to descend into the valley where we would find Trient. As the ground fell away beneath us, the sun began to come out, and we found a rainbow forming in a cloud in the valley below us. We stopped to take in the breathtaking view, then continued on our way.

The village of Trient sported a prominent pink church with a crowded cemetery. We walked through the town and found the Hotel de la Grande Ourse, a big, cheery building with a grand dining hall and a nice reading room. Shortly after we arrived, it began to rain in earnest, so we were glad to shower and settle in.

We only had two days left on the trail. We had traveled through three countries and hiked more than 90 miles, and the next day we would leave Switzerland and return to France. The ups and downs of the trail were becoming easier with each passing day, and at this point, I think we both knew that we would be able to make it all the way. The weather report for the next few days looked promising. We had no blisters, no aching joints, no excessive fatigue. We were very close to completing our journey.

And we had conquered the bovines — both the alp and animal kind.

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TMB Part 7: Weathering dilemmas

Our first full day in Switzerland started with skies darkened by rain. We stepped outside into the chill, jackets under our rain gear to keep us warm. We walked through a valley past Swiss chalets and small gardens full of lettuce, squash, leeks, strawberries and raspberry bushes.

Our destination, Champex and its lake of the same name, sat atop a mountain saddle above the valley we walked in. So after a few miles, we crossed the valley and began to climb the side of a mountain. We found wild raspberries on the side of the trail, and we stopped to pick and eat them. We saw a giant brown slug, two big snails and a tiny frog. Along the climbing trail, there were wooden carvings of forest animals and mushrooms.

We picked our way carefully up the slope, for the rain made parts of the trail slippery. The misty water created its own beauty, and since we had the right equipment to say warm and dry, we enjoyed the change in weather.

Today was the easiest day on the trail, and because we had risen so early, we arrived in the small resort town of Champex at 12:30 after climbing out of the valley. Lac Champex looked beautiful, even in the rain. We stopped at a small bistro for lunch and had a salad with cold cuts, pasta bolognese and a blueberry tart. It was a most delicious lunch.

Our bellies full, we donned our rain gear and packs and trudged through the rain drops to get to the Gite de Bon Abri, only to find that they did not open their doors until 4 p.m. It was then 2:30.

This presented a dilemma of sorts. We had walked a good distance from Champex to get to the Gite. It was rainy and cold. A tarp covered a few picnic tables in the yard, and a family of four was huddled under its shelter. We joined them and removed our wet packs and rain gear. We bundled in warm outer clothes against the wind and began to read.

Another hiker showed up and, after circling the building, told us that the glass-enclosed boot room was open. It provided shelter against the wind. It also smelled strongly of sweaty feet. But warmth won over stench, so we perched our bottoms on a hard bench in the boot room and continued to read until the owner let us in and showed us to the dorm rooms. It was a luxurious evening, as we had a dortoire for six with only one other person in the room.

 

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TMB part 6: A feast for the senses

We rose before dawn and got our packs ready, then ate a quiet breakfast of bread, yogurt, fruit and tea in the dining room. The sun began to bathe the gray peaks on the other side of the valley in light, reflecting brightly off the white snow caps. We slung our packs on our backs and started in the cool of the morning.

IMG_7602The first part of the hike led us along the mountainside across the valley from the Mont Blanc massif. We walked by waterfalls plunging rapidly into the valley below. We stepped through fields of wildflowers of all colors bending to the wind. We passed the brown shells of former houses. And we carefully and slowly made our way past a small herd of brown and white cows who had stopped to graze on the trail, cowbells clanking musically atlas they moved their thick necks.

We stopped at the Rifugio Elena, which sported a wide outdoor patio with a spectacular view of a glacier-topped peak. Emile got a cappuccino and I had a hot chocolate, which was so thick the spoon could stand up in it. It tasted like they had melted chocolate chips into a coffee mug. We sat in the sunshine, sipping our warm drinks and enjoying the view.

IMG_7611From there we climbed the Grand Col Ferret, which marks the border from Italy into Switzerland. As we ascended, we climbed parallel to the glacier we had seen at Elena below and soon rose above it. At the Col, we could see the gentle green slopes of a Swiss valley before us, and behind us we could see across Italy and back into France.

We only paused a minute on the Col, because a fierce wind chilled our bones. We hunkered down in our jackets and gloves and headed down the hill. Yellow and white wildflowers peppered the hillsides. We found a flat, quiet spot out of the wind to rest and have our lunch, then we continued down the path to La Fouly and the Hotel Edelweiss, our home for the night.

We did yoga on a small grassy area at the back side of the hotel that overlooked a rushing river and a glacier between two peaks. The late afternoon sun felt warm on my skin and the smell of grass, sound of the rushing water and the sunlight ever changing as clouds passed overhead created a feast for the senses.IMG_7608

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Refuge

Around Mont Blanc and other mountainous areas in Europe, you will find refuges. Most refuges sit high in the mountains, remote from any towns. They tend to feature dormitory-style rooms, with bunk beds or simple mattresses on a rudimentary bed frame. Depending upon your perspective, refuges either seem like roughing it or like the very lap of luxury.

When you get to a refuge, you are greeted by staff who often know a little bit of many languages – enough to tell you what you need to know for a pleasant stay. Everywhere we went, the people spoke a little English, but told us their French was better when we told them we liked to speak in French. They will explain the rules of their particular domicile. Most ask you to take off your hiking boots in a boot room. They have communal shower clogs for people who don’t bring their own. I strongly suggest bringing a pair of cheap shower clogs to wear in the showers. They can double as shoes for mealtimes with a cosy pair of socks.

After you remove the boots, you can take your pack and find your room. Some places have designated beds and others let you choose. Note that if you are the last to arrive for the night, there may not be much choice. Either way, when you get to the room, you can carve out a small space for your pack and get settled. Many afternoons we would arrive early, and we would leave our things in the room and find a place to do some yoga. After that, we would typically set out our sleeping sacks, fish out our evening clothes and take turns finding the showers to wash the mountain off of our skin.

IMG_7572Sometimes you find the showers separated by gender, often in the women’s or men’s toilet area. Other times, the showers and bathrooms were co-ed, with a small private changing area right outside of the shower. They all had hot water, which felt soothing on tired muscles.

After a shower and change of clothes, we would look for somewhere to sit and read. Often we arrived well before dinner time, so we would have a lot of time to do so. Other groups would have a pre-dinner drink if one was available. Still others would explore the area a little on foot, lighter without the packs on. Then everyone would gather for dinner.

The refuges serve breakfast and dinner at set times, usually 7 am and 7 pm, and you can order a simple sandwich for lunch the next day if you ask at dinner time. They serve the food family style. You sit at a designated table with other hikers and eat family style. The meals consisted of several courses, sometimes soup, sometimes salad, an entree, sometimes cheese and dessert. We had many memorable meals, from a simple steak with fries and salad to spaghetti bolognese. The soups were warm and hearty and cooked all day. For people who have allergies or special meal requirements, it’s always best to let the refuge know in advance so they can be sure to prepare something appropriate, but they do ask about it when you arrive.

IMG_7647Conversations at dinner can be animated or somewhat challenging depending upon the language capabilities of the table. One night we ate dinner with a French woman who was a Spanish teacher and a Spanish couple who spoke no English or French. We had a conversation in Spanish, all of which I understood, but my Spanish is not strong enough for me to add to the conversation. Another night we had dinner with two adventure athletes from Britain. Still another, quieter night, we ate at a table with people from Norway and Sweden who could better converse in their native tongues than in English. No matter what country people hailed from, we all shared a common experience of being on the mountain.

Many of the refuges have quiet hours starting at 9 or 10, but most people, worn out from the exertion, are quiet long before that. Emile and I would retreat to the bedroom after dinner and read our Kindles. We would soon be asleep. The snoring of other people never kept me awake, although I know there were others who found it troublesome.

My son and I are early risers, so we would often get up and quietly pack our bags well before breakfast was served. We would get dressed in our hiking clothes so that we would be ready to go after we ate. Then we would head to the dining room.

Breakfast usually consisted of a variety of breads, yogurt and granola, and often some kind of cheese or meat. Butter and jam accompanied the breads, and they offered coffee and juice to drink. If we had requested a lunch the night before, we would ask and they would have them ready for us. Then we would say our goodbyes and head out for another day on the trail, until we made it to the next refuge.

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TMB Part 4: Fear and Wonder

The wind blew fiercely as we climbed out of the Vallee des Glaciers toward Col de la Seigne. We trudged slowly up the mountainside, pausing occasionally to catch our breath. We could see hikers above and below us. A glacier hung above us to the left. The wind pierced our layers, so we brought out hats and gloves. It seemed to knock us off the path, back to where we came from. We leaned in and walked on.

Eventually we looked down on the glacier to the left. We had climbed 3,600 feet to the top of the Col de la Seigne. From here, we could look back down at the valley we had come from in France, and we looked forward into Italy. You could see mountains in every direction, but our way lay forward, plunging into a new valley before us.

IMG_7573We began our descent and passed a pack horse carrying a group’s belongings. We saw a pair of marmots cavorting in the short alpine grass. We descended to the Refugio Elizabetta and had lunch leaning against the stone foundations of an old ruin. We descended into a valley and walked along even ground for some time, and the the trail cut hard right an up another steep mountainside. The map and the trail descriptor in the book were not very clear, and even though the sign pointed up, the beginning of the trail was overgrown with shaggy plants. Nonetheless, this appeared to be the trail, so we started up.

We came out of the overgrowth and  the trail continued up again past the tree line. We had gained another few thousand feet when it began to thunder. We listened for a while, then felt a cold breeze on our necks, so we stopped and pulled out our rain gear — rain jackets, rain pants, pack covers and wide-brimmed rain hats. A few minutes later, it began to rain. Then it poured. Thunder cracked ominously overhead. We were about as high on the pass as we could possibly be, and we were soaked and exposed. We were tired as well, as this was our second steep climb of the day. There was nowhere to hunker down. The highest point on the pass was about 500 yards away, but I was afraid of being the highest thing around at the top of the point in a thunder and lightning storm. I expressed my fear out loud, and my son Emile said, “Once we get there, we are headed downhill again.” I took a deep breath and we forged on.

As we reached the pass it began to hail. On the other side, heading down, we were awash in a river of water and hail. We picked our way carefully to a point below the pass and stopped to put gloves on to protect our hands from the marble-sized chunks of ice raining from the sky. We continued on, very slowly, paying attention to each treacherous footstep so that we would not slip and fall off the mountain.

The storm stopped suddenly, and we paused to look out. A rainbow appeared a few thousand feet below us, and we would see the wall of rain heading down the valley ahead of us. It was a moment of wonder, one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. And we would never have seen it if we had not weathered the storm.

We continued down and it began to rain again, gentle and steady this time. We had lost track of the time because we didn’t want to take off any of our wet gear to check. Eventually we could see a building below. When we reached it we found that it was La Madison Vieille, our refuge for the night. IMG_7581

Next: TMB Part 5: The Refuges

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TMB: Pause and reflect

When you are walking on a trail, you put one foot in front of another, and when you are writing about the trail, you put one word after another as you describe it.

But on the trail, sometimes you have to pause and reflect. Am I hungry or thirsty? Hot or cold? Tired or energized? You can look at how far you have come, and how far you have left to go.

And so it is in writing, too: I pause here to reflect on what brought me to the trail, and its significance in my life. And to do that, I have to look back at how far I have come, back to the summer and fall of 1974, when two events changed my life forever.

That summer, I was seven years old, and my family went on our first overnight backpacking trip in the back country at Yosemite National Park. My sister and I carried small red rucksacks. We hiked three miles, camped overnight, had our food stolen by a bear, and hiked out the next day.

IMG_7607I was enthralled.

A few months later, I lay in a hospital bed, fighting for my life. I had osteomyelitis, spinal meningitis, pneumonia, a deep vein thrombosis and a pulmonary embolism. No one knew how or why I got sick. No one thought I was going to make it.

I survived.

In the 1970s, no one really thought much about child psychology. Everyone was relieved that I survived and no one really wanted to talk about it much. I didn’t want to talk about it either. But for a long time, I didn’t really believe that I was ever going to grow up. I was so scared of how I had almost died, out of the blue, that I found it hard to think about the future.

Over the years, I have struggled over time with the physical fallout of that illness, and also struggled to allow the traumatic feelings from that time to surface. I became an expert at tamping them down. But as time has passed, I have become more successful at integrating the experience into my life. I acknowledge that it happened, but I also don’t allow it to define me.

But as I approached my 50th birthday, I felt that it was important to do something special. Something big. I thought about my love of the outdoors, of my first backpacking trip that summer. And the Tour du Mont Blanc trip kept coming to mind.

So as I pause on this journey of writing and hiking, I’m looking back to 1974, to that little girl who really wasn’t sure she was going to make it to adulthood. And I want to tell you, honey: Your life is beautiful. And you are still enthralled with the outdoors.

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TMB Part 3: Col du Bonhomme

From our hotel in Les Contanimes, you could see, far in the distance, a distinctive peak that looked a little like a jaunty cap on top of a monolith. It looked like it would take a while to drive to that peak, and it was about half of what we were going to do that day. I tried not to think about how far it looked, and instead put one foot in front of the other.

We started the morning in a drizzle, but soon the clouds burned off and and soon we were donning our sunglasses and slathering on sunscreen.

For a while we walked along an old Roman road and over a Roman bridge that crossed a beautifully carved slot canyon. We passed through fields and forests.

IMG_7550And as we walked, the Col du Bonhomme seemed to get closer. For a while, the trail wound peacefully and slowly uphill. We passed carved wooden troughs with fresh alpine drinking water. We hiked through fields of beautiful wildflowers — pink, yellow, white and blue. We passed more cows and horses. We saw distant waterfalls and the remains of the foundations of houses from another era — stones still standing in the shape of square rooms.

The trail led right up and out of the valley, and then seemed to climb straight up the side of the mountain. Once again, breathing became a challenge, we began to sweat and we felt the leg muscles as we climbed. The last part in particular required focused attention. A single rock or patch of loose dirt could have turned an ankle or caused a fall. Everything else fell away as we focused on our next step.

We climbed about 3,600 feet out of that valley, and as we paused for the occasional water break, we looked back down where we had been, amazed that our feet had taken us so far. When we finally reached the top of the pass, we could see a valley plunging down on the other side. That tiny cap we had seen from below now loomed above close by. We could see a new set of mountains rising from the earth. It took our breath away.

At almost 8,000 feet, it felt chilly at the top of the pass, and a brisk wind blew, so we put on our down jackets and hats and sat down to eat lunch and enjoy the view.

After eating our sandwiches and resting for a while, we continued to climb to the Col du Croix du Bonhomme, the highest point of the day. I began to feel my “trail legs,” and could better navigate the rocks and ups and downs the trail put before me. When we got to the peak, another spectacular view awaited us — along with our descent into Les Chapieux. The descent would be almost as far as the climb.

On the way down, we passed a massive herd of sheep, branded with small red hearts on their flanks. We saw a small stone house that looked as if it had been part of the hillside for centuries, and a few more stone ruins. Time stood still in the valley — it could have looked substantially the same 600 years ago.

We arrived at Auberge de la Nova at 4:30 – it was our first dormitory of the trip. There was a beer garden outside, so we were able to relax for a while before dinner. We were in a room with eight bunk beds. The other couples in the room hailed from Russia, Sweden and Norway, and we had dinner at a table with some of the couples from Norway and Sweden. During dinner, a storm swept through the valley, bringing hard rain and the first rainbow of the trip.  A beautiful end to the longest and hardest day so far on the trail – 12.5 miles and thousands of feet up and down.

Next: TMB Part 4: France into Italy

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Tour du Mont Blanc, Day 2: More cowbell

On the first official day of the tour, we woke up early and ate whole-grain bread, cheese, yogurt and honey for breakfast. We left at 8 a.m. and walked across Les Houches to the Belllevue cable car. It took us up 1,500 feet and we began our hike, which was mostly downhill that day.

After the challenge of the day before, it was a welcome change – not because it was particularly less physically challenging, but it was less fear-inducing. The path was wide and relatively smooth. We passed through several small French hamlets, with timber-lined houses that sported small vegetable gardens, window baskets of colorful flowers and rose bushes climbing up the white walls.

On this day, we saw cows wearing the cowbells — giant leather collars with a huge metal bell beneath. We saw goats frolicking in a pasture, horses, donkeys and sheep.

The trail took a steep descent into a gorge with a glacier-fed river running through it, and we stopped so Emile could cool his feet in the icy stream. We ate our apples, made the steep ascent out of the gorge and walked through a series of little villages — Champel, Tresse, Le Greviot, to name a few. In one village, we passed by the home of the astronomer who discovered Neptune. The trail finally cut off the road again and we walked through the woods next to another stream. We walked until about 1 p.m. and found ourselves at the Hotel le Christiana in Les Contanimes. They had an outdoor pool, so when we checked in we changed into swimsuits and went to jump in. The water looked inviting, but it was cold!

We covered 8 miles in less than 4 hours with breaks. We discussed our pace and agreed we were hiking at the rate we expected to. We ate vegetable soup, veal, polenta, fresh fruit and cheese for dinner that night. We checked the weather for the next day, which showed a chance of thunderstorms, and agreed we should take off early since the chance was highest in the afternoon.

Next: Col du Bonhomme

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Tour du Mont Blanc, Part 1: Unofficial Beginning

My son Emile and I started our tour du Mont Blanc in Chamonix, nestled at the base of Mont Blanc on the French side of the mountain. The town teems with an eclectic mix of locals, outdoor enthusiasts and high flyers wearing expensive leisure wear. Every outdoor company imaginable seems to have a storefront here: Patagonia, Arcteryx, North Face, Mammut, Helly Hansen and many more. Paragilders descend into the valley like giant butterflies. A silty, light blue river runs through the city center.

Our first night on the trail was at Les Houches, which was a short bus ride down the valley, but we wanted to get acclimated so we decided to take the trail down from Chamonix to Les Houches The day before we had done a short hike down into the valley from Mer de Glace, an ice cave at the end of a glacier, so we wanted a bit more before we hit the trail in earnest.

We filled our water bottles, packed up our gear, adjusted our poles and stopped at a pastry shop to buy breakfast and lunch. We took the telepherique up the mountainside to Plan Praz, where the paragliders jump off of a ledge, and we started the trail at 6,000 feet. We were headed up, straight up, up the side of the mountain. The trail zig-zagged over rocky switchbacks. There were no trees, nothing to stop a tumble down the bare mountain if you missed a footstep. I was breathless at first, and nervous about the edges of the trail and the dramatic drop off. I told myself to put one foot in front of the other. We stopped often for water and to see where we had been. Plan Praz fell away, and the houses in Chamonix looked like tiny toys almost a mile below. Helicopters hovered in the air beneath us. We were walking on the roof of the world.

We reached the pass at Le Brevent at about 7,500 feet. We could see into another mountain range beyond, mountains as far as the eye could see. There was a rock pile to one side of the pass, and our trail continued up the side of another mountain towards the peak. We rested for a while and then carried on.

We came around a corner and the ground fell away into a beautiful valley. We could hear cowbells clearly, but no matter where we looked, we could not see the cows. Finally I saw something else in the distance — two ladders straight up the rocky face of the mountain before us. I knew that there would be a few ladders on the tour, but I hadn’t realized we would come across them on the first day. I hadn’t prepared myself mentally for the ladders – I was afraid. But it didn’t matter, because they were there, and we had to navigate them. My attention became very focused on my hands and feet and each rung of the ladder. When we were finished, I breathed a sigh of relief.

After that, we continued to ascend, and finally reached the peak, where we could see down into an area with several lakes. We descended into the valley and crossed it to the point where we could see Mont Blanc and the peaks that surround it across the valley. The views were spectacular. We were as high as the peaks across from us. We ate ham sandwiches for lunch with a view of a nearby glacier. We watched clouds come and go across the mountaintops. It was as if you could reach out and touch the sky.

We spent some time eating and admiring the view, then we began our descent. The guidebook we had with us, by Kev Reynolds, described the trail down into Les Houches as “knee-wrenching,” and it was not kidding. The path was rocky, steep and winding. Occasionally there were iron rungs stuck in the rocks to allow hikers a grip to stop from falling. There were a few moments where I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

And then, after nine miles, we were in Les Houches. We stayed at the Hotel du Bois, which had an indoor pool, and we took a dip to ease the tension in our tired muscles. We had steak au poivre for dinner with fried potatoes and salad, and citron surprise for dessert, which Emile pointed out was a deconstructed lemon bar with pieces of meringue, bits of crust and a tangy lemon curd all on the plate together. It tasted like the best meal of my life.

The next day was the “official” beginning of our trip, according to our itinerary. But for us, the adventure had already begun.

Next up: Tour du Mont Blanc, part 2: Official beginnings

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The Mountains, one step at a time

I just turned 50, which is the same age my mother was when my father died. I also had a total hip replacement in December of 2013. These events, coupled with my own near-death experience as a child, have taught me that life is fleeting, and it’s important to spend time doing the things that matter to you when you can.

Since my son and I have always loved backpacking, I proposed a journey: We would spend 11 days hiking in the high mountains surrounding Mont Blanc in France, Italy and Switzerland. The circuit, if we could complete it, would take 108 miles of walking and more than 30,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, and we would carry all of our necessities save breakfasts and dinners.

We knew it would be a stretch. I had hiked since my total hip replacement surgery in 2013, with a pack and without, and up and down some peaks, but I live in Florida, where there are no mountains and no altitude changes. But there are long trails and stadiums and even a sinkhole with stairs descending 120 feet into the ground, so I packed my pack, donned my hiking boots and poles and trained as best I could.

The first day on the trail, the mountains looked daunting. The rocky path led straight up the hillside, zigging and zagging across the bare slope. A misstep would result in a fall that wouldn’t stop until you hit the valley 3,000 feet below. Above us, in the distance, you could occasionally see small specks moving — hikers that seemed miles above us in another world. In a word, it looked hard.

I looked up. I looked down. I looked at my boots.  Just figure out where to put your feet, I told myself. That’s how you climb a mountain; one step at a time.

And so we began. Sweat trickled down our necks. Our breath came out in short spurts. We paused occasionally to navigate a tricky set of stones or boulders. We paused again to drink water and catch our breath, only to have it taken away again by the view. One step after another up the steep mountainside, and eventually a glacier that had been far above us now appeared level to our eyes. More focused attention on the steps, then suddenly the top of the pass appeared ahead, and the trail below us fell away at a dizzying pace.

At the top of the pass, we could see for miles in every direction. Green valleys stretched out for miles far below. Small, puffy clouds appeared in the air above the valleys and beneath our feet. It felt as if we were on the rooftop of the world. Then we began our descent into the next valley, on our way to climb the next mountain.

We repeated this dance on almost every day of the trip, and although as time passed I became physically stronger and the hiking became easier, there was still that element of disciplining the mind, turning “I can’t go that far” into “I can take a step in that direction.”

The mountains teach me lessons every time I visit them.  They tell me to pay attention to what is before you. They remind me that it takes many steps to climb a mountain, but the most important one is the next one you take. They show me that even though life is short, if I put in the work, I can sometimes reap the benefits of peak experiences.

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One day at a time

When I was seven, I became, for a few weeks, every loving parent’s worst nightmare. One day I was playing on the playground with the other children, and then a few days later I lay in a hospital bed, delirious and feverish, fighting for my life, and no one knew why.

This is not a story of that illness, but instead a story of recovery. The illness ravaged my body and particularly my right leg. After a month in the hospital and two months on crutches and in physical therapy, I returned to school. I wanted desperately for things to be back to normal, and I couldn’t wait to be able to walk home from school.

The way to school was on downhill, and I made it there easily with no problem. But that changed when I had to go back up the hill. I discovered to my dismay that my right leg felt “tired” – I would later come to realize it was pain. This was 1974, well before the time of cell phones and helicopter patients, so I was on my own, with what seemed like an insurmountable problem. How was I going to make it home?

And suddenly it came to me. I don’t need to make it home, I told myself. I just need to make it to the lamppost. It’s not very far, and when I get there I can rest.

I focused all my attention on that lamppost, and when I got there, I sat down on a short retaining wall to rest. I can stay as long as I need to, I told myself. And then I looked for the next lamppost.

Those lampposts got me home that day, and many days to come. But even so many years later, the technique has helped me through many crises. I’ve been on bed rest for a month, so weak at the end of it that I became breathless walking across the house. At times, anxiety overtook me – I’m an avid walker, exerciser and dancer, and I feared I might never be able to do those things again.

So I returned to the lamppost. And I realized that if I took life one lamppost at a time, or one moment at a time, I might just be able to make it through anything.

I can’t walk around the yard today, I told myself, but I can walk around the house three times. The next day: I can’t walk around the yard three times, but I can walk around the yard once today.

There are many things I’ve had to give up along the way. For instance, I used to be a long-distance runner, but I stopped at age 23.

But the lamppost technique has focused me on what I can do. Today.

In one of my favorite childhood book series, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, the lamppost lights the way between the fantasy world of Narnia and real-world England. In my life, the. lamppost has lit the way between where I am today and where I want to be tomorrow. And it has helped me get there one moment at a time. So it seems a fitting title for the beginning of this written exploration. If you are still with me, thank for starting the journey with me.

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Growing is Painful. The Alternative is Worse.

Many of my garden plants have spent more than a year in my care, and it became apparent this spring that several of them needed transplanting. I could see that the rosemary stood taller than its blue planter, the thyme had spilled over the edges of its pot, the oregano towered above its aqua home, lavender loomed large and several succulents seemed in need of transport.

I did what any responsible plant parent would do: I headed to the pot store (no, not that kind of pot). There I basked amid row after row of beautiful vessels of all shapes and sizes, picking out the new homes for my growing green family. As I chose one, I tried to pick it up and realized – these pots get very heavy as they get bigger. Will I even be able to carry a bigger pot when they grow out of these, I wonder? Then the thought left me as we loaded up 10 bags of potting soil and compost into the back of my husband Curt’s truck and lugged it home.

Ensconced in the side yard with my new purchases, I surveyed the plants and new pots, and grew a bit anxious. The rosemary plant already stood almost two feet tall. How was I going to remove it from its current pot without hurting it? Looking at its lush narrow leaves, I could almost hear it crying out “No! Please stop! Please!”

Ignoring the imaginary please in my head, I took a trowel and began to loosen the soil around the edges of the rosemary plant. As I did so, I could feel the roots clinging against the sides beginning to tear. I winced and gently continued. The pungent smell of the herb mingled with the dirt. I turned the bright blue pot to an angle with my right hand and with my left, I grasped the base of the rosemary bush as best I could. I lifted the pot and turned it slowly upside down. The plant refused to come out.

Once again I took up my trowel and dug deeper in the pot this time, paying attention to every movement along the edges as I went, shaking the base, hoping I wasn’t breaking anything. I tried turning the pot upside down a few more times, but Rosemary refused to emerge. Finally, the last time, I sat on a chair, balanced the pot on my thighs and gave the pot a good smack on the bottom with my right hand as I pulled the plant away from the pot with my left. With a lurch, the plant sprang from the safety of its old pot, drenching my lap with dirt, the bound roots exposed to the light of day.

I moved quickly to loosen some of the roots, removing small drainage stones from the base. I placed it in the new pot, realized the plant sat too low, removed it and added more dirt. I put it back in and Rosemary listed alarmingly to the left. I removed it again and threw some more soil to the base, arranging it with my hands. Finally, the plant sat in its new home, level with the top of the new planter, still needing soil in the crevasse between its old boundaries and the new ones.

I plunged the trowel into the dark soil and pulled the rosemary branches back to fill in. Dirt spilled everywhere, darkening the green, the patio, my gloves. I realized that I needed to slow down, take small bits of dirt that wouldn’t overflow the narrow space.

Finally I stood back, covered in sweat and soil. and took a deep breath The rosemary needed water stat to ensure that it didn’t go into shock. I ran for the hose and brought it back to the new pot for a long drought.

I repeated the process with each plant, holding my breath with all of them. As I worked, I thought about the precarious process of growth. The plants seemed perfectly comfortable in their present containers. Being ripped from home on a pleasant morning, having your roots shaken out, shedding leaves and being dropped into an unfamiliar place before being drowned in water doesn’t really sound like a lot of fun. Growth is messy and painful, for people and plants.

Yet I realized as I worked that when I pulled each plant out, the roots had started to swirl around the bottom of the container – in other words, they were “root bound.” Even though these plants looked happy on the surface, their roots suggested that they needed more space to grow effectively. If I had left them in the smaller pots, they eventually would have withered and died.

I hope that I can keep that in mind when life seems tough, when it pulls my roots out of their soft, comfortable places and puts them in unfamiliar soil. It may take time, but eventually something new may grow.

Wildflower Weekend Wonder

I went to North Table Mountain Ecological Preserve this weekend. Before I got there, I felt drained from a busy and emotional week, and I hoped that a walk would help me clear my head.

Everywhere I looked, flowers painted the landscape with purples, yellows, whites, pinks and oranges. Poppies spilled down valleys between basalt columns. Buttercups flowed around rock piles. It looked as if Mother Nature had gone wild with her paintbrush on the lush green canvas of spring.

I feasted my eyes on the flowers, ranging from tiny yellow threads on the rocks to large stalks of lupine. Close up, each type had its own color, shape and size. From a distance, they simply looked like fields aflame with color.

Sometimes they formed a solid band of color. Other times, the flowers mixed together to show off their differences.

I left North Table Mountain eight miles and many memories later, once again amazed by the power of nature to put life into perspective.

What My Ring Toe Has To Say

I spent a beautiful Saturday morning in the foothills of the Sierras, walking with a dear friend, enjoying the budding flowers, the music of the American River, the creek-creek of nearby frogs. We hiked a good six or seven miles and returned home by early afternoon, my soul satisfied with the outcome of the day so far.

Sweaty and sticky from our recent sojourn, I doffed my clothes in anticipation of a warm shower. As I turned towards the shower from my bathroom sink, I brought my right foot around quickly and BLAM, smashed my fourth toe right into the edge of the concrete wall.

“Ouch!” A few more choice words may have been said. I thought I felt a snap, but when I put my foot gingerly on the ground, I felt no pain. Relieved, I continued on to the shower.

Later, however, my toe began to turn red. Then it turned purple. Then it swelled up. Then the purple and red began to spread down into my foot.

I swore, I cursed – all the anger directed at myself. How could I be so stupid? I asked myself. It still didn’t hurt when I walked. It hurt to put on a sock or put it in a shoe, but otherwise, it was fine. I’m fine. Wait a minute…

“It’s fine, I’m fine.” I’m in my mid-50s, yet still the same refrain emerges from my brain. It’s my first line of defense at any given moment. I am the meme of the dog sitting at a table in a cafe that is burning down around him while he holds a coffee cup and says “This is fine.” That dog is me.

So I take a deep breath and ask myself, “why is it so important that your toe is fine? And what happens if it is not fine?”

And the answer comes quickly: Through the stress of the last year, movement has kept me going, be it through yoga, dance or walking. And my toe is injured and I can’t move the way I want to, I will have lost my best coping mechanism.

Okay, fine. But how has that ignoring strategy worked for me in the past?

Answer: Not so well. There was that time when I backpacked 16 miles on a fractured femur that merited a total hip replacement (in my defense, I didn’t know it was broken when I went on the hike). And I have a few other examples, although I think that one is enough.

So late Sunday night, I wrote to my doctor and sent a photo of my swollen, bruised appendage. Monday morning her office called and asked me to come in. The radiology technician, a nice man named James, tells me where to put my “ring” toe on the X-ray plates. I wish him good day and return home to work and await the news.

It’s good news: My toe is not broken! The bad news: The doctor still wants me to stay off of it.

My ring toe, looking bruised but not as bad as it’s going to get.

“So that means no walking?”

“Yes…”

“What about dancing?” She looks at me.

“Are you on your toes?”

“Yes..”

“Then no dancing.”

“Okay. What about yoga?”

“You are on your toes a lot in yoga, so, no.”

I feel a surge of anger at myself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. With one klutzy move, I have cut myself off from my go-to, default coping mechanism. HOW AM I GOING TO COPE NOW?!?!?

I take a deep breath and let it out with a sigh: What is my ring toe trying to tell me? Well, clearly I need to diversify my stress relief mechanisms. I need to take it easy. And I need to cut my klutzy self, and my ring toe, a little slack.

I’m telling the story to a girlfriend that same afternoon and she asks me: “Have you elevated it and put ice on it?” There is silence.

“No…”

“Did the doctor tell you that you should?” she asked gently. More silence.

“Yes…”

That surge of anger again. Then sadness. Because my ring toe is trying to tell me I’ve had enough. Enough with the walking, dance and yoga as coping mechanisms. My ring toe is telling me there’s not enough of any of those to help cope with life right now. It requires a different kind of self-care.

So I thank my friend for her gentle and sage prodding. I “buddy tape” my toes together. I get an ice pack. I begin to think of all the ways I can take care of myself that don’t involve movement.

I begin to try a new way to heal. I try to find patience with my body, with myself.

I need to listen to what my ring toe has to say.

The river and the flowers are still there. I will bring my toe to see them again sometime soon.