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.

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.

2018: A year of questions

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” — Zora Neale Hurston

For me, 2018 has been a year that asked a lot of questions. My husband Curt and I changed jobs, moved across the country, lost his father to a stroke and said goodbye to two beloved pets. We joke that the only major change we didn’t experience in 2018 was divorce! Then we look at each other and laugh.

Much was left behind this year — jobs, parents, pets, states, friends, co-workers, hot tubs, routines, familiar places and faces. When upheaval happens, it’s natural to want to know why, but sometimes it can’t be known. It’s tempting to rail against the dark and unexpected, to struggle with a sense of unfairness.

But in the end, in a year that asks questions, it is better to embrace the questions. And to recognize that sometimes there are no answers.

How do I define myself? Who am I where I am unknown? Am I the same person in California that I was in Florida? Who am I without a job? Who am I without my cats? Why do we experience loss? Why now? How do I grieve my losses, yet continue with daily life?

These questions can cause you to collapse in on yourself, to withdraw, overwhelmed with pain. Some people build a shell to brace themselves against further sorrows. However, one thing I have learned in my five decades on the planet is that burying your grief will not protect you against future loss.

But if you can ride the waves of distress, sometimes going under, lost beneath the blue water, sometimes surfacing to catch a breath, you can remain soft and open and sometimes see beyond the sea’s surface to the brilliant light of the sky. You see that loss is the price paid for love, and that you have a choice. You can build your heavy carapace to protect yourself and sink beneath the waves, or you can continue to swim gently through the waves, enjoying the high points all the more because you know they will not last forever.

I have had years like 2018 before, and I will again — the years follow their own annual wave-like function. I just have to remember when the questions arise to embrace the questions even without the answers.

Walking the same path day by day

Every morning, I rise and walk my lab Shadow to the path that lies just behind the houses across the street.

It takes me through golden fields and past oak trees, passing by the dark brambles of blueberry bushes and a floor of acorns.

As we walk, my feet carve a groove in the landscape. My path becomes a moving handshake with the earth.

It’s possible to see my morning walk along the same path as a monotone event, but that would be a misunderstanding. Each time I start down that well-trod path, I quietly interrogate the morning. Each day brings subtle changes to the landscape. The sun never rises in the same place twice, the quality of its light changing each day. The air sometimes whispers and sometimes shouts. Sometimes the sky is a blanket of blue, other days it’s dotted with white puffs and occasionally a misty fog coats the tips of the cattails.

Some days, the moon hangs among the stars, fading as the sunlight crests the Sierra foothills to the east. On other days, cloud cover dims the landscape. And other times, sun-inspired colors paint the clouds red, yellow and orange.

Every day, the inhabitants of the fields change. On one day, geese flock overhead in vees. If we arrive at the right moment between dusk and dawn, when the earth is bathed in shades of gray, we encounter small cottontail rabbits and an occasional long-eared jackrabbit. On another day, groups of wild turkeys wander through the sea of golden grass. Birds of all shapes and sizes fly by on different days – egrets, herons, blackbirds, hawks, seagulls, pelicans, ducks, cormorants and owls. Other animals we’ve encountered in three short months includes a coyote, two skunks and an otter.

The September oak trees have shed their green and the winds have stripped them down to their bones. The brown remnants of leaves have built small sculptures on the earth beneath the tree trunks.

Each day, as Shadow and I walk this path, I feel a rush of gratitude for this new day with whatever the path decides to bring us. It’s the same path every day, but every time we walk it, it takes me on a new journey. I can’t wait to see what the next one will bring.

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.

Saying goodbye to Cedar Key

I am terrestrial creature. I have spent much of my life walking, hiking and biking across the land. I like to move under my own power, using my body to propel myself through the wilderness.

So when my husband Curt bought a boat, I had my hesitations. I’m not particularly mechanically inclined, and in the past I’ve preferred my water adventures in canoes and kayaks. Until two years ago, my experience on the water was limited to a few boats on lakes and an occasional ferry ride.

But once we got our boat and spent a little time on it, we started taking it to Cedar Key. And my world grew bigger.

It’s a straight shot from Gainesville to Cedar Key, following the old railroad bed. At first you pass trees. Then you drive onto a causeway and you pass by water dotted with small islands. Then you drive through the small town of Cedar Key to the dock, and suddenly you realize that you’re on the very edge of the world.

Beyond the dock at Cedar Key, you see a few islands and the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf stretches for as far as the eye can see, which is about six miles. You put the boat in at the dock, putter out past Snake Island and Seahorse Key, past the last marker. And suddenly you are surrounded by nothing but water.

The first time scared me a little. I found myself calculating the height of the waves and how far I could swim. But I also took in the beauty of the swells and the one thousand shades of blue contained in the water. I felt the quiet of the day, an occasional bird passing by, the startling contrast of a fish splashing above the silent liquid surface.

As we spent more time in the Gulf, I learned its moods. Some days the water stretched out softly like a great blue blanket, its surface broken only by an occasional dolphin or turtle. On these days, you could see below the surface to the grass and sand beneath on Seahorse Reef. Sometimes we saw jellyfish floating by on tides. Other times we saw fish swimming between grassy patches. On other days, the wind would create white-tipped swells and the water would turn gray and opaque.

The mornings often started clear, with few clouds anywhere. As the day grew long, you could see white puffy clouds forming over land. Sometimes they would coalesce into a thunderstorm. Other times, they just formed and dissipated over time.

We saw dolphins and turtles and tarpon and bait balls — hundreds of tiny fish that swirl and swim together in hopes of avoiding predators. Once I jumped off the front of the boat into a bait ball on a clear summer day. It was like swimming in a fishnado. Another time, we saw two separate pods of dolphins, and the day was so quiet you could hear their high-pitched calls. The two pods joined up and moved off in the same direction together.

We saw pelicans and seagulls and cormorants and osprey diving for fish and flying from one undisclosed location to another. We saw an occasional butterfly and wondered at its ability to travel so far out to sea to our boat.

We snorkeled and fished and sometimes just sat and stared at this seascape for hours. We went at sunrise and sunset and on Dec. 31, 2016, we took the boat out at 10 p.m. and rang in the New Year about 3 miles out to sea. You could not see the constellations for all the stars that appeared in the sky that night.

Last week Curt and I took our boat to Cedar Key for the last time. We saw dolphins breaching in shore as we made our way out of the channel. The skies and water shone in the deepest blue. At Seahorse Reef, you could see all the way down to the ripples in the sand and distinguish between the lighter sand and the dark patches of grass. A light wind skittered across the top of the smooth water, causing tiny ripples. A few puffy clouds gathered in the distance.

I’m grateful that I got to see the world from another perspective. Cedar Key has broadened my horizons and while we have said our goodbyes, I will carry it with me wherever we go.

The open road

In a few short days, we will jump in our Toyota Tacoma with our dog Shadow and drive about 3,000 miles through 13 states to move from Gainesville, Florida, to West Sacramento, California. The trip will take us about six days. We’ll be traveling through Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California.

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken an epic road trip, but I’m excited about the journey. There is no better way to get a sense of America than to drive almost all the way from one coast to another.

I lived abroad twice as a child and teenager, and that exposure to different cultures made me realize early on that my tastes and preferences differ from those of many Americans. I hate shopping malls. I speak French fluently. I prefer cheese, wine and chocolate croissants to hamburgers and fries. I’m puzzled by the enthusiasm for American football. I’ve often thought my personality was more suited for 1920s Paris than modern-day America.

But the one thing that never fails to bring me back to the roots of my American-ness is my love of a good road trip.

On a road trip, can drive for hours and still be in the same state. You pass rest areas and fruit stands. You pass by arbitrary state lines and notice subtle changes in the landscape and the people. You pass by fields and forests and foothills and mountain ranges and then pass by all of them again. You collect state license plates. You listen to music. You listen to stories. You talk, you become silent. You say hello to people in diners and on Main Street. You stay in good hotels and not-so-good hotels. You pass through blistering heat and epic thunderstorms. And still the road continues.

Since childhood, I’ve been a fan of the open road. My parents took me on road trips from infancy. There were car-camping forays from Illinois where they attended graduate school to the Dakotas and back, rolling down the road in a 1966 Dodge Dart with a giant yellow canvas tent in the trunk. A few years later, when my sister Clea as born, we drove the Dodge Dart from Urbana, Illinois to Pullman, Washington, where they had their jobs as professors. Pullman is pretty much in the middle of nowhere — for years, we drove 70 miles to nearby Spokane to buy back-to-school clothes. We continued our road trips throughout my childhood, driving from Pullman to San Diego to visit grandparents and in the other direction to Yellowstone National Park for family vacations. We drove to Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona. We drove to Zion and Bryce and the Grand Canyon.

I continued to take road trips as an adult to get from one place to another. But it has been many years since I’ve taken a trip like this, back before cell phones and the internet when all we had to listen to was the radio.

In the age of GPS, I still favor the large road atlas or map that I can spread across my lap and stare at the vast expanse of land we will cover. I can take my finger and trace different routes, stopping my nail above a “point of interest” that catches my eye. Then technology can step in to assist with a quick Google search to see if that point is interesting enough to warrant taking that road.

We haven’t yet decided on our final route. It will depend upon weather and timing and the location of fires in the West. But one thing is certain: The ribbon of highway has invited us to fly along its gray path, and we will soon join ourselves to it and start a new adventure.

A moving story

When you move, you shed things. Furniture, clothes, dishes, weight. Knick-knacks you’ve kept but don’t remember why. That souvenir that seemed so important at the time, but you haven’t looked at since. Books you have read and know you will never read again.

When you move, you find things. Old report cards. Fourth grade art work. Your wedding vows, pulled from a sheaf of papers found in a cardboard box in the attic. You find buried memories, tiny shining gems that remind you of who you once were and anchor you in who you are now.

When you move, you feel things. Disoriented, thrilled, sad, excited, apprehensive, upset, happy, bereft — sometimes you feel all of these things in an instant.

When you move, you do things. You open and close accounts, sign papers, write lists, balance budgets, plan travel, say “goodbye,” say “hello.”

When you move, you miss things. You miss your friends, you miss your yard, you miss your activities, you miss your grocery store. You miss the screaming cicadas on a sweltering summer night. You miss the dangerous allure of alligators in a nearby pond.

When you move, you experience new things. You meet new people, make new friends, discover new activities. You explore your neighborhood. You feel the cool air of a delta breeze hit your face after a hot, sunny day.

When you move, you see yourself, and the world, in a new way.

Portrait of a cat as an old lady

My cat Tidbit is 16, the equivalent of 84 in people years. She’s a tuxedo cat, with fluffy black and white fur. Her back legs and front paws are white and the color stops so precisely that she looks like she’s been dipped in paint. She has white all the way from her chin down her stomach. She has one dab of black on the third toe of her left paw, and the pad underneath that pad is black, while all the other pads are pink. She sports an irregular white stripe down her nose, and her nostrils are half pink and half black. She has surprising, bright gold eyes.

My son Emile and I adopted her just before in late December of 2002. The night we brought her home, she developed explosive diarrhea, and I had to take her, along with Emile, to the pet emergency vet at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night in a snowstorm. I spent the next few days trying to feed her medicine through a syringe, which resulted in me covering myself in neon pink liquid while the cat cowered under the sofa. Welcome to our home, little cat!

Tidbit survived the experience and quickly became my cat. She’s always had a quiet personality — during the day I rarely saw her, because we also adopted a dog at the same time, and between the dog and the boy, our house was rowdier than she liked. Occasionally I would hear a squeak and look over to see that our boisterous puppy Oreo had her pinned to the ground. I would scold Oreo and she’d let go, then Tidibit would scamper away and hide until Oreo went to bed with Emile. After that, Tidbit would crawl out from behind the sofa, sit on my lap, and purr and purr, her little paws kneading my lap as she expressed her contentment.

When I went to sleep at night, she would jump on the bed and snug herself into the curl of my left arm. We would fall asleep together.

Like any self-respecting cat, she likes to get tangled up in some yarn. And she has a thing about blue flowers — she hates them. If I brought home a bouquet laced with statice, she would selectively pull it out and leave it to die on the dining room table. I once placed a bud vase full of violets on the table, only to find their desiccated corpses laid out in a neat circle around the vase the next morning. Sunflowers, tulips, roses — those all passed muster. But no blue flowers for her.

After we moved from a small townhouse into a home with a yard, Tidbit discovered that she liked the outdoors. She never developed the aggressive hunting instinct that our male cat Morceau had, but she liked to sit for hours in the backyard. She would gaze at the birds and squirrels and yearning, crackling mewls would emerge from her mouth. She would bring an occasional moth into the house, but mostly she enjoyed watching the wildlife and being outdoors.

Never an adventurous cat, her health was uneventful for years with one notable exception. In the spring of 2004, I noticed that she seemed to be congested, and finally one day, she began panting rapidly. Alarmed, I took her to the vet, who looked in her nose and said, “There’s something alive in there. Whatever it is, it’s breathing.”

Wait. What?

She gave Tidbit some medicine to knock her out for a few minutes and extracted the organism. She excitedly informed me that the culprit was a cuterebra, which commonly burrow under the skin of rabbits and then burst out of the skin as they hatch.

“I can’t wait to tell my family that your cat had one up its nose!” She said cheerfully. She put the creature in a test tube so we could take it home. It was larva-like and disgusting and for poor Tidbit, it had been the equivalent of having a walnut shoved up her nose.

“Do cuterebra do that to humans?” I asked. Fortunately she said “no,” or I would have had to burn the house to the ground and move 1,000 miles away.

My cat became famous after that. No matter which pet I brought into the clinic, the vet would proudly let everyone know that my cat was “the one who had the cuterebra up her nose.”

Tidbit survived the ordeal, but to this day she still snores a great deal as a result of her tribulation.

Tidbit is the last survivor of all the animals who lived with us in Arkansas. She now shares the house in Florida with our black lab, Shadow, who has been with us for a year.

She doesn’t see well or hear well, and she struggles to get up on the sofa or on our bed. She has thyroid disease, arthritis, anxiety and high blood pressure. I crush up several different medicines for her and stir them into stinky moist cat food to avoid having to try to give her medicine through a syringe as I did all those years ago.

But despite her ailments, she still enjoys sitting outside and listening to the birds, trees and rain, curling up next to me on the sofa and snugging up under my left arm at bedtime.

The Mountains, one step at a time

A year ago today, I began a journey in the mountains, and a few weeks later, I began this blog. This was one of my first posts and it continues to ring true.

Things I've Learned Along The Way

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…

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