Did I Sign Up For This?

Even though so many of our New Year’s resolutions get tossed out the door before we even take down the Christmas lights, January is still a time of beginnings. Fresh starts. Clearing out of clutter. Reorganizing. Building new habits.

Well, I’m doing all of that. And I hate it. My whole life needs to be reshaped, but not in a way I initiated or would have chosen.

My beloved partner of 14 years was hospitalized in early October for a severe infection. After a series of complications that included dramatically severe reactions to medications and a high-risk surgery, in mid-November he died.

So my reboot for this new year means adjusting my days around the huge empty space where he used to be. The man I woke up with, hiked with, enjoyed deep conversations with, and worked crossword puzzles with (I did names, puns, and references from classic fiction; he handled geography, science, and French.), is gone.

Gone too soon. This active, younger-than-his years man left so much unfinished. Research projects not completed, students not graduated, grandchildren not grown, trips not taken, and so many conversations and experiences not shared. He left behind memories, stories, sadness—and a whole house full of artifacts of his life.

One of them is this school picture from first grade. That sweet, tentative smile and the vulnerability of those eyes behind the big glasses just melts my heart. I want to reach back in time, scoop that innocent darling child up onto my lap, wrap my arms around him, and tell him some things he couldn’t know back then. This is what I would say:

“You are going to have such a wonderful life. You will grow up to be a man of honor and integrity that people trust and respect. You will have a long, fulfilling career doing work that you love. You will travel to many of the fascinating places you are just beginning to learn about. You will be a learner and a teacher, helping shape the lives and work of people all over the world. Of course you will have hard times and disappointments and pain; everyone does. You will also have much happiness. Many, many people will learn from you and love you and be grateful for your part in their lives. Your life will be rich and full, and the things you do will make the world a better place.”

The long-ago photograph of an endearing little boy captures just one moment in a full life. Then, too, his painful last weeks were just one tiny segment of that life. The distance between the lovable child he was and the beloved wise elder he became was a long, rich path.

I’m so grateful that I was able to walk part of that path with him. This new beginning of a new path that I’m coping with now is hard. I didn’t want this transition I’ve been handed. There are so many painful moments: I find the stub of a play we attended in the pocket of a coat he’ll never wear again. I pick up a page of unfinished research notes in his handwriting. I walk by myself on a trail where we held hands the last time I was there. It’s all hard. It all hurts.

And it’s all a fair exchange. This difficult life change wasn’t really forced on me at all. I chose it, as one of the inevitable possible consequences of choosing to share life and love with someone else. No one made me take the risk to open my heart. I did it myself. I would do it again. The past 14 years of partnership, conversation, laughter, and love were worth it.

Categories: Family, Loss and Healing | 16 Comments

Deciding Made Easy, In One Easy Lesson

For two or three months now, a green plastic bottle cap has been collecting dust in my car. Along with a few pennies and a couple of mints, it sits in the flat little compartment by the cup holder that is probably meant to hold parking-meter change.

The cap is from a bottle of Sprite, I think. Since as an infrequent soda-sipper I don’t pay much attention to the finer points of bottle cap design, I’m not sure about this. Besides, I didn’t get this cap by personally emptying the bottle it came from. It’s in my car because it was a gift.

I received it from my five-year-old grandson when he taught me how to flip a bottle cap so he could defeat me in—er, challenge me to a cap-flipping contest. He demonstrated exactly how to tuck the end of your thumb under your curled forefinger, balance the cap on top, and flick up your thumb to send the cap into the air. It also would work with a coin, he explained.

How, you may or may not wonder, does a person get to a grandparentish stage in life without ever having learned the proper way to flip a coin? Continue reading

Categories: Family, Odds and Ends, Remembering When | 3 Comments

Required Reading

I am always baffled by articles suggesting ways parents can encourage their children to read more: Designate a family reading period and set a timer. Enroll in library summer reading programs. Have them tell you about what they read. Read the same books you want them to read and then discuss them.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I think encouraging children to read is wonderful. If more people spent more time reading more books, the world would be a better place. Especially for authors and optometrists. But in my family, the challenge wasn’t to get children to read, it was to get them to stop reading long enough to do other stuff like chores and homework and practicing the piano.

So it isn’t the goal of encouraging reading that I don’t understand; just the strategies. Continue reading

Categories: Remembering When, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Missed Congeniality

“It’s a relief to have a meal with a young woman who isn’t scared to death,” the Very Minor Celebrity who was visiting our very small college told me. “The girl I sat beside at lunch was so nervous her hands were shaking, and the peas kept falling off her fork.”

It’s not that the Very Minor Celebrity was such a scary guy. True, his self-assured presence and trained actor’s voice, not to mention his advanced age (he had to be almost 30) gave him a sophistication that was more than a little intimidating. But the real reason the poor girl couldn’t eat her peas wasn’t his presence but the reason for his visit. She was one of the contestants hoping to be chosen to represent our school in the Miss South Dakota pageant and potentially have a shot at becoming Miss America 1970. He was one of the judges.

Even though I was perfectly calm enough to eat my peas in peace, I was also participating in the pageant. Continue reading

Categories: Fashion, Living Consciously, Remembering When | Tags: , | Leave a comment

From Size 10 to Size 6—Overnight!

Yes, a dramatic overnight transformation from size 10 to size 6 really is possible. I’ve done it myself. Truly. When I was in high school, I wore a size 10. Suddenly, a few years later, I became a size 6. Even now, weighing around (mumble, mumble) pounds more than I did then, I wear a size 6.

The reason for this has little to do with my actual size, nor the size of any other adult female person. It’s because sizing standards changed.

For a long time—pretty much ever since people started making fabric and shaping it into clothes, probably—making clothes that actually fit meant measuring one person at a time and cutting the garment to match. The first attempts to standardize women’s clothing sizes in the United States came in the 1930’s and 1940’s, thanks in large part to catalog businesses like Sears Roebuck wanting to help customers order garments that that might actually fit them. In 1958, the National Bureau of Standards came up with an official standard. After a couple of decades of various revisions, adaptations, and increasing disregard by manufacturers and retailers, in 1983 the Department of Commerce tossed its measuring tapes into a corner and gave up trying to maintain standard sizes for women’s clothes.

Thousands of women have done the same. Continue reading

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Double-check your Language

In the car with three small children, headed for Storybook Island on a sunny afternoon, I had a moment of grandmotherly concern. “I need to stop and double-check that we have sunscreen,” I told the kids as I pulled over. I looked in the bag; the sunscreen was there; I resumed driving.

After a thoughtful pause, the not-quite-four-year-old piped up from the back seat. “Aren’t you going to double-check?”

“I did,” I told her. “I looked, and I found the sunscreen.”

“But doesn’t ‘double-check’ mean you look twice?”

Well, duh. Of course it does. Or at least it should, if you pay literal attention to the word instead of the way we use it. I didn’t really double-check; I only single-checked. It takes a clever grandchild (no bragging involved, of course) to notice that.

Which leads a reasonably clever grandmother to start thinking about some of the other words we use without paying much attention to their literal meaning.

Such as: Continue reading

Categories: Words for Nerds | 3 Comments

What Does “Adult” Mean?

As a child, I used to think there was a portal to adulthood that everyone passed through at some point—on their 21st birthday, maybe, or when they graduated from high school or college, or at some other magical milestone that I would reach someday. On the other side of that portal would be “the answers.” The confidence, wisdom, and grownup status to know, in pretty much all circumstances, what to do and how to do it.

By now I know better. If such a portal exists, I haven’t found it yet.

Oh, I know what “adult” means in the legal sense. It refers to someone who is old enough to legally vote, buy alcohol, enter into contracts, serve on juries, and do other grownup stuff like get tattoos or piercings without needing anyone’s permission. Continue reading

Categories: Living Consciously | Tags: | 2 Comments

Eat Breakfast or Be Breakfast

It’s hard to sleep when the neighbors’ drama is happening outside your bedroom window at 2:45 a.m.

The noise that woke me wasn’t all that loud, but it was clearly the sound of someone in distress. When it was repeated, I put on my glasses and peeked through the window, trying to be quiet enough for my spying to go undetected.

The sounds were coming from the left, outside of my field of vision. But in the light of a moon that was either half full or half empty, I made out a vague shape just below the window. When it moved, I could see that it was a fox, also focused on the sounds. It started toward the noise, came back, watched a bit more until the sounds stopped, and then ran silently off toward the right with its tail flowing behind it.

After a few more uneventful minutes, I settled back into bed. Apparently whatever had happened out there in the dark was some variation on the circle of life. Or, more precisely, the circle of life and death. Somebody, on a night of good fortune, got to have breakfast. Somebody else, less fortunate, got to be breakfast. Apparently the fox, like me, was only an observer.

This assumption was confirmed when I went for a walk later in the morning. Starting at the corner of our property, following along and then across the road, was a trail of blood drops.

After this little life-and-death drama had played out, it took me a long time to get back to sleep. When I did, I dreamed that a troop (herd? mob? barrel?) of monkeys broke into the house and ate all my bananas. At 6:00 a.m., I woke up to another mysterious noise, which turned out to be my stomach growling.

Thankfully, it was a day when I was one of the fortunate ones who got to have breakfast. I didn’t even have to hunt for or kill it first. And the only unfortunates whose lot it was to be breakfast (besides the banana—thank goodness, the monkeys were only a dream), were the hapless goobers that had been ground into my peanut butter.

I hope the fox was equally fortunate.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: , | Leave a comment

If We’re 65

Turning 65. It’s not necessarily anyone’s favorite milestone birthday.

So many things about getting older are annoying. Vanishing hair, for instance. Those silver ones are fine, even attractive if the light is just right; it’s all their friends and relations that have disappeared who are the problem. Or joints that start to creak when you move and stiffen up when you don’t. And skin that begins to look and feel somehow too big for you.

Even worse are the reminders that, at 65, you have suddenly moved into a new demographic category. One populated by “those to be condescended to.” Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously, Loss and Healing | Tags: | 1 Comment

Everyday Lifesavers

“I saved his life.”

Unfortunately, whatever lifesaving the sixtyish woman at the next table had done, it wasn’t exciting enough to make her raise her voice as she chatted with her husband about it. That one tantalizing phrase was all I overheard.

This left me to wonder about the rest of the story. Whose life? How did she save him? Rescue him from drowning, or a car crash or a conflagration? Give him a kidney? Was he a child? Was he even human? Maybe he was a dog or cat they had 30 years ago, for all I know.

That’s the frustrating part: I don’t know. And I never will. Because as an unrepentant but courteous eavesdropper, I do know it’s bad manners and worse strategy to lean over and say, “I didn’t quite get that—could you please speak up?”

After I finished wondering about the other woman’s mysterious lifesaving, my mind took the next logical path. I started wondering whether I’ve ever saved anyone’s life. Continue reading

Categories: Living Consciously | Leave a comment

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