Sunday, March 22, 2015

Virtuality

I know this is nothing new, but I've been thinking about connections and the Internet and my choices. Being sick has something to do with it: I have nothing to do but force liquids and process thoughts.  The thoughts are routine, as are the conclusions.  I am learning nothing, creating nothing worth communicating.  But, the urge to communicate, to write, and to share doesn't care about quality.  That urge is about connection, and it will not be denied.
 
We are so disconnected, with our virtual lives.  We can't sing together over Facebook, we can't hug.  Emoticons don't sound like love or hurt or joy or righteous indignation.  Clicking on an email envelope icon does not have that lovely crackly sound or give that feeling of anticipation. The email travels instantaneously over the airwaves, not through the air, through hands, through human agency. There is no planning, no effort in its transmission.  It is usually about news, and it is usually created casually, impersonally.  It is not savored over a cup of tea or saved in a bureau drawer. 
 
Of course, no form of letter takes the place of personal connection.  But something tactile is so much better than something electronic. I've re-learned since SC was incarcerated what a treat it is to open my mailbox and find a letter instead of bills.  It's like a birthday present, like chocolate, like hearing a favorite song, like Carbon greeting me at the door.  Like love.  I do miss going out to the mailbox with the expectation that something wonderful is waiting for me.  And I have started writing letters in order to give that pleasure to others. SC cannot get email, and E doesn't remember to, but I'm sending letters to others as well.
 
Don't get me wrong:  I'm immensely grateful for the immediacy of the virtual connection.  I don't feel so alone when I see a name on a post or a note in my inbox. This past week, when I have been so ill, the Internet has been my lifeline.  I check for messages.  I post photos and haiku complaints and receive pity and good wishes in return. I text V, asking for a grocery run, and she brings me home-made chicken soup as well.  So, the virtual connection keeps me from total isolation and, in a lot of ways, the sound bite nature of it works better for my energy levels. My responses can be written quickly and I don't have to worry about my penmanship.
 
In fact, I wonder if I really do miss the physical connection?  As I mentioned in a previous post, living with E taught me that I am indeed an introvert.  I have fought all my life against the deep exhaustion I feel when the inertia of staying in pulls against the desire to be social.  It's like trying to pick up a cat that doesn't want to be picked up.  It's heavy with resistance, limbs and head hanging lifelessly, almost impossible to move.  So, I have scheduled myself and made commitments to force the issue.  The consequence seems to be that  I  regularly get sick and collapse.  I didn't get this extended sickness the whole time I was with E.  It might be because I wasn't working with the public then, but I think it's because I need stay home with my books and my music and my time wasters.  A 40-hour traditional public-contact work week is anathema.  How much of my physical response is caused by depression, I do not know.  I don't feel depressed:   I am aware of serenity and sometimes joy.  The discontent seems to come more from the "shoulds" than my actual feelings.  I "should" be active and productive and social and creative.  I "should" get out and exercise.  I know that I'll be glad I did.  But I felt those "shoulds" up on the mountain, too.  Was it because my activities had to be severely limited and rationed that they did not overwhelm me?  Was it because my normal day was spent cooking and eating and doing crosswords?  E at 99 was more active than I at 55.
 
There is the contradiction. I like being alone.  But I miss my friends.  I like zoning out with my knitting and my pictures and my books and (god help me) my Netflix reruns.  But I miss the activities and connections.  In fact, I recently received a text from S, who is visiting Portland with his Seattle girlfriend, and I peppered him with names of restaurants and theatre groups.  It was so hard to decide which to fit into one short weekend.  I was so excited for them! I was virtually with them, and it felt great, but....lonely.
 
I don't know why I don't just move back to Portland and my tribe, but somehow all my choices keep me here with the dry air and the circle of juniper-clad hills, with the huge bowl of sky upended over the sage-filled fields.  Early in this week of illness, I walked out to get the mail, and a raven soared silently overhead, huge blue-black wings outspread, each feather distinct. (Did it follow me from the campus? What is it trying to tell me?)
 
There was nothing in the box.
 
 
 
 
 

Not orange or black, but dusty maroon

We got up at 8 so we would reach Grants by 9:30.  It had been a late night, with M driving down from Colorado, picking me up in Taos, and then stopping off in Cerrillos for a fantastic concert of Early Music.  We didn't reach the house in San Antonito until 10:30 pm and were both exhausted, but slept well.  We had breakfast with P and I fed Zeus the cat and told him we were going to visit his Mom that day.

It was a glorious day, warm with a bit of a cool breeze.  After the preceding week of snowstorms and closed roads, it felt like a gift of early spring Since it was a Saturday, there was not much traffic on the road, which was a good thing:  M was still getting used to the size of the Tundra. We drove through the badlands, which are a jumble of huge broken lava flows and bubbles and tubes protruding through sage and surrounded by red and ochre mesas, which are cut into canyons by the arroyos.  A long train passed through the landscape, green and blue and maroon rectangles bisecting the fields, pointing towards the mesas in the east.  Another train passed when we left at 3:30, and that time the golden late afternoon sun cast the train's shadows.  It is a lonely landscape, but a truly lovely one.

 We had to stop by a bank to pick up rolls of quarters for me (M had already purchased his in Colorado).  Turns out that's the only thing we are allowed to bring with us into the visitors' room. No knitting, no food, no jackets, no sunglasses.  Just two rolls of quarters and the clothes we stand in (and no sleeveless tops either.)  We arrived at 10:15.  The building is long and low, with narrow windows.  It is surrounded by the traditional barbed wire and empty fields.  It's a typical government installation.

 
 
M was a nervous wreck, trying to make sure he did everything right.  He had to go out to the Tundra to stash my sunglasses and his wallet, which they would not keep at the desk. They gave him the wrong set of keys, so he had to come back again.  They did allow him to bring in the vitamins that he needed to take at 11 am, since visitors are not allowed to return once they have left.
 
There were two young women waiting in the anteroom, and they were called to the visiting room while M was out at the truck. Then it was our turn to wait while SC was being "processed" for the visit.  The walls were covered with posters and regulations, which I read carefully while I awaited M's return from the parking lot, and the ceiling was low, with square, covered fluorescent lights. The waiting room was approximately 300 sq ft, with the desk and scanner and gate to the left as you enter, and institutional chairs lining the walls facing the entry and the desk.  The chairs were separated, so M and I had to push them together to hold hands comfortably while we waited.  I kept hoping that it was legal for us to do that. 
 
The dark stocky young man behind the desk was actually quite nice about M's jitters and my questions about knitting.  And he was even nicer when I set off the alarm going through the gate scanner.  Oh, yes, my rings are metal.  Alarm again.  Take off shoes, recheck pockets. Nothing.  Alarm again.  Man, that thing is sensitive. All we could figure is that the bra hooks were setting it off.  The guard scanned me with the handheld scanner and let me through.  We walked down a short  concrete-block hall.  Everything was  beige-white: floor tiles, walls, and ceiling tiles. The lights were bright and yet somehow dingy.  The walls to our left were covered with posters about caring and proper treatment.  The walls to the right contained doors to restrooms and a private room.  The women's restroom had the eyewash symbol, too.  We stopped at a gate that was top-to-bottom bars.  We could see double doors ahead and a windowed door to the left.  That was our destination. We pushed the button to the right of the gate, and it parted and slid open towards us.  Another button, and we were in the visitors' room.  SC was coming through a door to our right.  She was wearing a dusty maroon jumper, purple eye shadow, and clogs, and she gave me a long hard hug.  Then it was M's turn. 
 
The CO (Correction's Officer) was a young woman, with nicely bunned hair, delicate features, olive skin, and a slight build.  She pointed out the chairs that were ours:  two small plastic blue chairs facing another plastic beige chair.  There were approximately 10 of these arrangements, set in loose rows between the CO's desk and the vending machines.  The chairs to right and left of ours were filled, and there was another group or two towards the back of the room.  Everyone seemed comfortable and calm.  Conversations were quiet, smiles frequent. The atmosphere was clinical rather than penal:  it was like we were visiting hospital patients in a particularly uncomfortable waiting room. 
 
The CO brought a small square beige plastic table/stool to sit between us and made me move my chair so the camera could see me.  She also took my jacket and hung it up on the wall behind her desk. The guard had warned me that might happen, but fortunately the temp was okay. The CO's desk was large, with a high narrow counter surrounding it on three sides, and a window behind it.  It held a phone and the CO's lunch, but not much else.  The view from the desk commanded the entire room.  Visitors faced the eastern wall, which held the restroom door, the meshed-filled windows into the phone room,  and the door through which inmates entered.  The phone room contained 3 or 4 stations, unseparated.  It was long and narrow, and was currently empty. Through the phone room window, we could see a door into a hallway that led straight east.  Another hallway apparently led north-south, behind the phone room.  The door from the hall into the phone room remained open, and around noon we could see inmates in green and blue shirts and slacks filing past, watching us curiously.  The CO eventually got up and put plastic cling sheets on the windows so the light came through but the inmates could no longer see us. I'm still trying to figure out why they didn't just close the door and cover its window.
 
There were several visitors, but plenty of room for more, so I wasn't worried about being asked to leave before the 3:30 curfew.  To our left, closer to the CO station, a woman in her fifties with a protruding chin faced the two young women I'd seen in the lobby.  They left after a few hours and she told us it was her daughter (and a friend) whom she hadn't seen in 8 years.  She was proud that her daughter could see her clean and sober:  she had been so for over a year.  I'm still trying to do the math:  is it really possible to be not clean and sober in prison?  I guess I'm too naïve.  SC told me that the letter I had written with calligraphy pen and ink was considered "suspicious" and was withheld for that reason.  Apparently drugs can be put in the ink, and the inmate then eats the letter.  For the same reason, the authorities have withheld the crayon missives from her grandkids.  They take photocopies and let her read those, but won't give the photocopies either.  Seems odd, but I guess I should be glad she was allowed to read the letter.
 
There was a small area for kids, with carpet, toys, books.  It was surrounded by a short wooden fence with a gate.  Later in the visit we went in there to get a group photo taken by the CO:  the only time outside of the greeting and farewell hugs that we were allowed to touch SC.  Otherwise, the only contact was visual and verbal.  She wasn't allowed to go to the vending machines, either.  We had to take our rolls of quarters, examine the wares, and ask her what she wanted.  She wanted a lot, because it was a treat.  Soda, candy, burgers with chili, burritos:  the usual vending machine fare for the usual vending machine prices:  $1.25 for candy bars, $1.75 for drinks, $3.50 for burgers.  We probably spent close to $30 on SC and on ourselves.  I felt sick afterwards.  Why couldn't we bring in our own food?  But it did give us something to do, someplace to go at intervals in the conversation. 
 
The plastic bottle drink machine was fascinating:  a robot arm moved laterally and vertically from the bottom left corner, positioned itself in front of the selection, caught the bottle as it moved forward, moved again in precise jerky motions to the deposit chute, and dropped the bottle in.  Sadly, it didn't always work.  If it wasn't positioned perfectly in front of the bottle, nothing happened and it returned to the starting position.  The machine did give back the money, at least.
 
The microwave was to the left on the machines, and, again, could only be used by the visitors. We had to bring everything for SC to the CO desk.  After I returned to my seat, SC was allowed to go to the desk and get the food.  Thus, no sharing of chips, no handing over anything.  I did notice that the girl on our right was allowed to play Scrabble and card games with her visitors, so there was some possible exchange.  SC didn't want to do anything but talk, though.  So we talked.  M talked about his travel trailer and plans, SC talked about her job sewing and other bits of daily life and the audit that the Corporation was undergoing.  (Rumor had it that they were caught shredding documents.  I don't understand the rumor mills:  where does the info come from, and how is it disseminated?  SC says the guards are the source, and I guess that's it, but it still doesn't make sense to me.)  I talked about my job and Taos. Towards the end we talked about her legal situation and her relationships.  As I suspected, D's speech in court devastated her:  she sees her father's influence in every word.
 
It was so difficult to just sit for 5 hours in those hard plastic chairs.  It was so difficult to not be able to hold her when she was upset.  M spent much of the visit holding my hand, rubbing my arm:  was it because he couldn't do the same for her?  In that sterile environment, touch was what we wanted, and what she needed, and what we couldn't give.
 
There was a restroom for inmates only:  twice I had to go back through the door and the gate to the one in the hall.  Again, my naïveté:  people pass things in the restrooms, apparently.  It's not all about metal, you see, and the detector cannot catch everything.  For example, another inmate asked if her daughter could buy some quarters from us:  she had a $5 bill.  Since this was the inmate who had the bed next to SC and was apparently threatening her, I wanted to be accommodating.  I asked the CO about it, the CO said it would not look good in front of the camera because no one is supposed to bring in ANYTHING except a roll of quarters (and M's sanctioned vitamins.)  I'm still trying to figure out how an exchange of money between visitors could constitute a risk of contraband.  I'm still trying to figure out why SC could not take off her clogs.
 
I asked about the maroon jumpsuit.  It's the special visiting outfit.  Usually she wears a green T and pants.  The God Pod wears blue, and the high risk pod wears read.  No orange to be seen.  As per usual, the TV show gets it wrong.  I'm not sure what color the fleece (which has still not arrived) is.
 
So the hours passed and it was time to leave.  Another long hard hug, and we all filed out the door, while the inmates waited in the room.  The anticlimax was discovering I'd left my jacket in the room (one of the colorful Marketplace India ones):  I got back through the gate and knocked on the window.  I pointed to the jacket and SC went to the wall where it was hanging and brought it to me.  I hope she didn't get in trouble for it.
 
We drove home through the golden late afternoon light, met SC's friend F at the 66 Diner for an early dinner, and talked some more.  My mind was a jumble:  M's traveling plans, F's moving plans, SC's legal plans.... everyone talking and doing and trying to make things better.  But SC is in prison for 8 years, in which anything can happen and all plans can go awry.
 
I just wanted to go to sleep.
 


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Totems.



Today my lunch path took me around the campus on the paved walkways and roads:  didn’t feel like putting on my hiking boots and slopping through the muck.  There are a few places where one can get pix of the encircling mountains and the huge sky, sans buildings, without the need of getting into the fields.  As I walked, I looked into the blue blue sky, and there was a huge raven, wings outspread, soaring overhead.  There are a lot of them around, but for some reason, this one struck me as meaningful:  like he was right there for me to see against the sky, accentuating the blue and the feeling of being in the center of everything, my own wings outspread in the cold wind, my own eyes looking down and up, seeing how the world is encircling me, how the air is holding me.  I don’t think my totem is a raven, but this one certainly spoke to me.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Boredom

I'm spending a 3-day weekend with E:  her replacement caregiver was fired last week, and the next is not available until later this week.  It is wonderful to be here again, watching the birds and the snow and the clouds.  I got up at 6:30 this morning to take sunrise pix,


and now I'm watching the white fluffy clouds floating behind the mountain silhouette, with bright New Mexico blue accentuating (or being accentuated by) them.  I miss this, but I don't miss the boredom.  The last two days were very snowy, and I wanted nothing to do with the roads.   In fact, I made a break Thursday afternoon, in between blasts, when the pavement was dry.  There were several inches of snow in Taos, and the University was closed Mon, Thu, and Fri last week.  Interestingly enough, they don't tend to close the campus when the sun goes down and we night workers have to drive home in sleet and ice.  But, if there is snow falling in the morning, they close up.  The weather usually calms by noon, and the roads are fine by 1.  That was the case on Thursday.

However, once I got to Cerrillos, the snow took over,

 
and there was nothing to do.  I built a fire in the casita on Friday (and totally smoked the place out).  We spent the afternoon doing crosswords and reading and basking by the fire, and we made dinner (pasta with olives and tomatoes and garlic, chicken pounded with chopped nuts and fried in garlic and olive oil, with capers and lemon juice added, salad made by E.)  And by 8 pm I was long past ready for bed.  Same thing on Saturday.  I chopped kindling for the casita and C/M's pod, and that was about it.  I was in bed by 7, and cancelled my 10 pm tutoring session.  C called me, and talked, talked, talked, and I kept nodding off, and he kept saying "K? are you there?  are you awake?" and I'd mumble, yeah.
 
What is it about this place that makes me want to sleep, sleep, sleep?
 
I guess that's why I didn't accomplish much during the 18 months I lived here.  I focused on domestic activities, doing Tai Chi Chih, walking (with and without E), shopping, cooking.  I read, took pix, practiced some music.  But the pace was very slow, and I didn't really do much except heal.  Now that I'm back in the swing of DOING things (even though it's still not much), I'm aware of how little happens here.  No wonder E feels like her life has halted.  No wonder she wants to return to the more active lifestyle she used to have. 
 
I think about my friend SC, who is in prison for the next 8 years.  She calls me regularly (since I can't call her and we can't e-mail), and her life is boredom personified.  She's read 20 books in the 3 months that she's been in.  She has several books of her own in process, but she has to pay for paper and pen and can't use a computer, so that's a slow process.  In fact, the whole system is set up to actively discourage any productive or creative activity, and to destroy any connections with the outside world.  It seems counter-productive to me, although I guess the idea is to make it so unpleasant no one will want to come back.  But, recidivism is rampant, and I think it's because the system slaps down the impulse to improve one's life.  So, it's difficult for anyone to acquire the skills that will take her someplace positive when she leaves the system.
 
In fact, since it's a for-profit agency, the prisoners are exploited.  They have to buy the necessities, and many of those necessities are "out of stock."  For example, my friend still has no washcloth:  she uses her underwear.  We can't send her paper or stamps or warm sweaters.  We can put money in her account, and get charged an extra $7 per transaction for the privilege.  If we want her to call us, she has to queue up for the phone, and we have to put money in that account, too.  Often, when we are talking, the call is interrupted:  a random lockdown on the holiday, a call for her to meet with someone, and one bizarre time when the monitor thought I had initiated a third party call.  (I hadn't.)  Even when things go well, the calls are restricted to 20 minutes, and if we want to continue talking, she has to call again.  There are TV's but no sound:  she has to buy a radio and earplugs to get that, and guess what?  it's out of stock. 

She is feeling a little more productive now, because she finally got a job sewing, which is a step up from sweeping the "pod."  She gets 20 cents an hour, with the chance of increasing to $1.20.  This would be outrageous in any other society, but I guess she should be glad she doesn't have to pay for her room and board as well as her necessities and communication needs.  And, there's the possibility of another job that will give her access to a computer.  Woo hoo!

So, I think about her situation, and I wonder how she is managing to keep her spirit, her sense of humor, and her creativity.  Even setting aside the reason she is there and the legal fight for which she is gearing up, she has plenty of cause for depression in the institutional boredom.   I look at her and marvel.  Could I do the same?  I don't have any reason to fall prey to boredom in my situation:  I am free to walk outside, to take pictures, to write, to work at a good job, to see my friends. I can surround myself with beauty. I can make music.  I can cook a healthy meal. She has none of this, but she continues to take her meager possessions and make the most of them.  The other day, she concocted a foot scrub out of food bits (I can't recall the details.)  In other words, she is not just surviving, she is thriving.  I wish I could say the same for myself.  But even now that I'm off the mountain, working a 40-hour week and building community, I don't seem to have the drive to create.  I am so tired.

Have I created a prison?



Monday, February 23, 2015

Why am I still here?

The other day I heard from my friend DH.  She's been visiting her son in Florida and is seriously considering selling her Portland house and moving eastward.  She was calling me to hear just how difficult it was to leave my home and friends of 30 years.

I said, I would never move to Florida full time.  The summer heat is like an assault.  Why not live part time in Portland and part time in FLA, rent the PDX house to a Reedie?  She'd have the best of both worlds. That's been my dream, and I still think it's a viable one.  I went on and on about it, but that wasn't what she was interested in hearing. 

What, she said again, was it like to leave Portland?  I paused and thought.  "It was devastating," I said.  But, I was so exhausted by the failing marriage, I did not know which was the more devastating, leaving my home or losing my love.  She understood that pain.  Most divorced people do.  But it was beside the point.  I thought some more.  Why am I still here?

Thinking back over the past few years, I realized that I have not thought clearly about anything since at least 2009.  I have been reacting:  I didn't want to hurt D, I wanted to get out of MCL, I wanted to find a job after I was laid off.   Then, I moved to ABQ, left D, and started healing.  There were so many decisions, so many changes.  But throughout those changes, I never seriously thought about moving back to Portland, even after I left the ABQ job, even after I started burning out on my caregiving job.  I've been sending off the odd job application to Oregon, but I haven't seriously planned to move back.  If I wanted to move back, I could have gone back.  I could have healed there instead, surrounded by the people I love, a 2-hour drive from the ocean.  Instead, I stayed here and slept and healed and started to build a new community.  Now I've started over again in Taos.  My brain is clearer, and I want to know:  why am I still here?

While I talked with DH, I was walking on the trail behind the parking lot, surrounded by sage fields. My hair whipped in the breeze.  Mountains ringed the horizon.  The sky was a blue upended bowl, edges meeting the mountains, clouds painting swirled and striated patterns.  Two ravens winged their ways overhead.  I could hear the wind in their feathers.  I could hear a far-off caw, see them circle around each other, and then watch them fly steadily west towards the mountains. I had that feeling of serenity and grounding that I get when I walk along the ocean's edge or in a mountain meadow.

Is this where I'm meant to be?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

RIP Aunt J

She raced her plane in
The Powder Puff Derby, and
Her voice soared also.

She was smart and adventurous and creative. She had a sweet and strong soprano voice. She was my godmother, and she cherished a thank you letter I once sent her that ended "I can make fudge." Her favorite childhood story was Muggins Mouse. She took care of her baby sister L and adored her nephew E. She was a secretary at the VA. But, by the time I met her, she had been forced into an early retirement, and she lived a depressing life in her messy overstuffed house half a block down the road from her parents.

This was in 1981, when I graduated from college and moved to Portland. I had a ready-made family and friends. My brother went to Reed College for four years, and, after getting his Master's in Eugene, he returned to Portland. His friends took me in immediately, and I began to meet my mother's family. My mother's parents and one sister lived across the Columbia in Vancouver, but the rest of her family lived in Portland: one aunt, one first cousin, one first cousin once removed, and their attendant relations. It was odd to have an extended family, because our family had been so insular while I was growing up. Our traditions and behaviors were centered around the immediate family. Our extended family lived in the Pacific Northwest and western Minnesota. Grandma S would fly across country for special occasions, graduations and weddings, mainly, but I never met my aunts or cousin. So, this family did not feel like family. I knew we were related, but I didn't grow up with them, and even familiar things like lefse and krub were subtly different.

Technically I knew the Minnesota family better: Dad was an only child, and we visited his family in Minnesota during the summers. However, I was never clear how we were related to most of the people we met. We would go out to the Carlson Farm and my twin and I would play with C, who was our age. We would roam around the barn and the fields before returning to the house for the cakes and cookies and other midwest foods like glorified rice and 3 bean salad. The grown ups would have been talking about people I did not know and reliving the various illnesses and events of the previous year. I was not interested.

By the end of our two-week vacation, we would have visited all the relatives. Every day we swam in the outdoor town pool. Other activities included trips to Granite Falls, swinging on the tire swing, visiting Minneapolis for a day of shopping and some Bridgman's ice cream, and walking along the alleys between Grandma H's and Great-Aunt Inga's homes. I remember visiting F, an enormous woman with tree-trunk legs in support hose. Her sitting room had horse hair furniture, covered in antimacassars, and the house had that special old-person smell of baking, onions, coffee, and mothballs. I'd sit on the floor, looking with awe at her legs and listening to the sing-song immigrant Norwegian tones, the occasional exclamation of "uff da!" And then I'd go outside and explore the yard, with its water pump, white clapboard shed, and short-cropped grass.

A lot of the time was spent sitting around the house, reading, listening to the victrola, looking at the stereoscope. Grandma H had some books: I read Anne of Green Gables in an old green hardcover, with black and white plate illustrations. I still remember the picture of Anne trying to walk across the ridgepole, wearing her unattractive aproned dress, her hair in two braids.

I remember those activities more than I remember the people. As a general rule, my attention was inward, and I did not really connect with anyone. Now I thought that the family gatherings in Vancouver would be different. I was an adult, and I wanted to know who these people were. I had heard stories of all of them, and there were cute pictures of my twin and I as flower girls at L's first wedding; but I remembered the punch fountain at the reception and the black waiter on the train better than I remembered my family. My cousin was literally half my age, and L was only 4 years older than my brother. My brother was 10 years older than me, and I didn't know him well, either. 

My brother and I usually drove over together in those early days. The gatherings centered around my Aunt L, and it was clear that had always been the case. She was always well put together, with ethnic jewelry, hats, and tailored outfits of rich materials. She talked of art, history, literature, music, with a well modulated voice and careful enthusiasm. Aunt J was usually there when we arrived, bulking in the corner. She wore tent dresses, and her cheeks were flushed with rosacea. Her iron grey hair was short, wiry, and unkempt. When she spoke, there was a subtle undertone of resentment. She would talk about her "patients" and other grievances, and we would wait for a pause and then change the subject. 

I became close to the rest of the family. I saw my Portland aunt regularly, and when he entered college, my cousin lived in my house. Once I had a car, I visited Grandma S on a monthly basis, taking her to lunch at the Holland restaurant, going shopping, going to the doctor, driving out to the cemetery to visit Grandpa. Aunt J often hitched a ride on these excursions, and it was always uncomfortable.

As the years passed, the discomfort of Aunt J's presence grew. She would ramble about the past, and it was never a pleasant reminiscence. She would talk about her ailments: teeth, digestion, and legs were always giving her trouble. She would accuse neighbors and shopkeepers and family of various ill-doings. Eventually she was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and put into a care facility. She would call us with threats and anger. There were problems with her housing and her guardian, but the family had no legal right to help, and she refused to relinquish control. Her guardian sold her house, and she spent her last days in assisted living, barely able to walk. Once she became less mobile, we did not even see her at family gatherings. Most of her possessions were sold or stored in her sister's garage, although she frequently sent pictures and photocopies of legal papers to us.

And now she is gone, and I don't know what I feel. I used to think I would be the Aunt J of my generation: single, childless, smart, quirky, crazy. But even that thought did not make me compassionate towards her. I avoided her presence. I did not answer her illegible and rambling letters, I did not answer her phone calls. Oh, occasionally I would write or call, but not much, not enough. And I would sit next to her at gatherings and talk with her, and remember her at Christmas and birthdays, but I made no special efforts to see her outside of the group. I do remember the mortification of attending the St. Olaf Choir performance with her; she spent 10 minutes rustling through her purse before I finally spoke up about it. Was the offense really bad enough to keep me from doing anything with her again?

Her sad and angry later years have swallowed up her adventurous and joyous early years. I am sorry I did not spend more time learning about her. I am grieved that I was not part of her life. And I am frustrated that I cannot write a suitable farewell to her. All I can say is, she was a remarkable and creative woman who accomplished much in the face of great obstacles. And I wish I'd known her.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014: healing, endings, and beginnings

Last year I did my year-in-review by pulling the first lines from each month's blog.  This year I cannot do that:  I didn't blog in November because I was taking the NaNoWriMo challenge (hey, I won!) and I was prepping to leave Cerrillos and Wit's End for the new job in Taos.  I was finding my replacement and looking for a home. I didn't blog in December because I was finishing up concerts and packing and planning for holidays.  And, basically, the muse was gone for the time being.  I was too busy living, and not able to put my energy to contemplation.

Today, however, I am doing some retrospecting.  I used the Facebook apps to create a status/photo update and realized afresh how rich my life is with travel, friends, family and the beauty that surrounds us all.  After years of focusing on stress, in 2014 I could focus on the small wonders of each day.  And each day inspired photographs and haiku.  I didn't post all of them, but I could see the change in emotion; as the year got older, I became more serene.

The typical day started slowly:  doing the crossword and drinking good coffee while watching clouds float above the mountains and birds perch in tree tops.  E would read the NYT and share the headlines or ask questions about them.  I have an image from the early months:  we are outside, facing west, the sun shining over our shoulders.  She reaches for her toast and smiles at me:  "This is the life," she says.

I have other images too, mostly from our various journeys and errands.  We are in Albuquerque,  driving past the yellow cottonwoods in the Rio Grande as she gasps in wonder, "I'm in heaven!"   We're going down Goldmine road, watching the cloud shadows on the Cerrillos hills and singing "White Coral Bells" and other old fashioned rounds.  "Do you have music in your head?" she asks.  We pass the park in Santa Fe where she remembers sitting with both her daughter and her favorite caregiver.  We sit at a table outside Echo gelato, the small bright orange and yellow cups filled with our chosen frozen concoction.  We take the tiny plastic shovels, carefully spooning small tastes.  I share my stracciatella, and she says she'll get that next time. We're walking along the Cerrillos Hills State Park trail towards the overlook:  she is mesmerized by the plaque depicting the animals, illustrated by local schoolchildren.  She finds the lion outlined in the cliffs across the valley, its mouth open in a yawn.  (While I could recognize her cloud images, I never saw that lion.)  We're at San Marcos Cafe, watching the peacocks pecking in their enclosure or walking past the windows.  She says, "they don't have ducks?" and "soon it'll be time for a fire."  She loves the cinnamon rolls, so we share an order of that and an order of Eggs Benedict.

There are so many moments. She hated the electronic keyboard that we had on loan, but I coaxed her into accompanying me for some singing.  On our regular walks, we would stop to look at the arroyo:  "Do you suppose it will ever fill with water?"  The bird seed drew out foxes at dusk, and she pondered about them:  "Where do they live?"  The flowers made her catch her breath:  "Oh I hope E will be able to see them!"  E is never far from her mind or her conversation.  "When will she be back?"

Then there are the lost moments.  I never wrote down the way she would mis-hear me, but we laughed at each piece of delightful confusion.  I never found out why she was crying that night in bed, but I held her until it stopped.  I never learned Spanish from her, never took her to the Atomic Museum or Los Alamos or Bandelier.  She only came to a few of my concerts, and I only went to church with her a few times:  those were usually when the respite caregivers were on duty and I was visiting friends in ABQ or rehearsing or playing concerts.  And much of each day was spent in separate worlds, she reading Liz Gilbert or the biography of Oppenheimer or a history of New Mexico, me tutoring, writing to friends, editing photos.  Those moments are gone now, and I miss them.

But, she is there:  laughing, perseverating, forgetting, and loving.  I sit by her chair and put my head on her knee, and she strokes my hair.  "I'm going to miss you so much," she says, and I reply, "I'm going to miss you too."  We make plans for visits, and I know that this is something I need to do, and I hope she will become resigned to the change.  However, deep inside, where I am ashamed to acknowledge it, I hope she doesn't like the new caregiver TOO much:  I am jealous, even though I'm the deserter, I'm the one moving on.  She has taught me so much about aging gracefully, about living fully.  We both have experienced loss, but we both know how to recognize and share joy in the midst of that.

I was so lucky to have this time of healing.  I don't know how to thank her, and the other Co-op members, and the people in my musical organizations, and my hiking buddies, and friends and lovers, and family.  They have made up a huge net that has held me, bobbing up and down after the fall, inches above the water.  I lie face down, looking into the depths, and I see they are filled with light and color amidst the sharp coral rocks and tunnels that threatened to trap and drown me.  I turn over on my back and look at the clouds that sail by.  I don't do anything for a very long time, but gradually, as I bob gently, I close my eyes and surrender to the peace.

And now, I have found my healing, and it's time to climb out of the net and swim to shore.

Thank you, E.