The View from Down the Hall

A lesbian lives down the hall from Connie, not that she cares.

It’s a label she has avoided all her adult life and now, at 88, a neurologist asks if she and Babs “are a couple of queers.” It isn’t the first time she has heard that question (in so many different words) for she and Babs lived together for over 40 years but now they live apart with separate lives.

Babs promised to stay but finally, she found a relationship with her daughter, who lived 300 miles away. And then there was the volunteer job as a docent at a local museum. Connie was invited to move, even offered a house, but Connie liked being the one with the money and doing the offering.

It would be five years before she moved to be with Babs in the same town but in an apartment. All their years simmer, a pot constantly stirred, frequently boiling over, their differences the only constant they have ever known.

In her remaining years, Babs is immersed in what it means to be in the workforce at 86. She kept the house, washed the pots, and cared for Connie’s every need for decades. She doesn’t miss the life but she misses the Connie “who could sell ice to an Eskimo.” Business after business, Connie was a success.

Now, her mind is a jumble. Intersecting thoughts, their edges jagged, her past seeping into her present, a rapier seeking its mark. She doesn’t know daydream from daylight.

“If this is me, I don’t want it anymore,” Connie says, turning her snow-white head from side to side, blue eyes red rimmed, but her thin face younger than her years. Babs took good care of her, it seems. Still, Connie’s snake-like spine increasingly betrays her with pain and immobility, but that’s nothing like the longing she has for Babs.

Connie never had to care for herself so she never learned how. She always had enough money to hire everything and everyone. “I just can’t do any of that,” she has told me time and again, and I have come to believe what Babs told me, “I waited on her hand and foot.”

Their bond was that they never tried to change each other. Their differences keep them plotting, stirring the pot, making sure the pilot light never goes out. They live as if life–this one right here–is eternity and they have all the time in the world to mold life as they need it to be, at times demand it be.

I admire that, I really do. Of course, I cannot  know their lives, only what I watch through my life lens (with my own boundaries and biases) but it seems a badge of love, this life, for Connie and Babs.

That’s the view, anyway, from the lesbian who lives down the hall.

All Right Will Never Be the Same

My primary care physician and I are having our usual conversation when she says, “If you didn’t do what you are doing, you would not be living on your own. Others would be caring for you.”

“Thank you” is all I manage to reply. There are so many facets to what she said. Later, I tell a friend who responds, “that’s so powerful.” It is indeed.

My mind’s memory reels spin, searching for July 2015, days before the surgery to decompress my spinal cord and prevent quadriplegia–this time. I’m told to stay at home and “whatever I do, don’t fall.” So, I don’t.

My stagger resembles a drunken Frankenstein’s monster and more than once, my scrambled eggs end up on the floor, as signals short-circuit. My limbs are less and less.

I meditate a lot and dream, vividly.

I am in a surgery where all the instruments, table, and equipment are white light in a brown paneled room. Dressed in a hospital gown I sit on the surgery table, legs dangling over the side. I’m not alone.

 Maurya sits next to me, also dressed in a hospital gown, legs dangling over the side. We talk about the surgery, as if she were still alive but she is not so our conversation is the sense of speech.

 “But I will make it through, right?” I remember repeating the question as she leaves, taking some of the answer with her but not all. I will go through stuff, maybe a lot, and I will be all right, but all right will never be the same.

And it hasn’t been, knowing there is no recovering only progressing, and no one, even in dreams, knows what that may mean for spinal cord and autoimmune disease.

I “do” not waste days wondering or analyzing dreams. I immerse myself in the life I have, and the more present I am the larger my world. My days are never long enough for all I want to do.

Mindfulness is not a placebo; it is awareness, raw and unfiltered. Finding the worthwhile in the seemingly worthless, like Leonard Cohen’s cracks that let in the light, imperfect in an impermanent life, one experience after another. It’s in the unexpected that I find out who I am.

This latest round of medical visits began with my driving to Georgia with a tampon up my nose. Who knew that was a thing? This is my kind of unexpected–almost expected, now.

Every three months, I see my rheumatologist and this last Tuesday, just as I was getting ready to leave, my nose began to bleed. These nosebleeds are now chronic, a side effect of Sjogren’s syndrome.

Immediately, I pinch the bridge of my nose, deciding whether I need a light(L), regular(R), or super(S). I don’t want to change tampons while I am on the road so I settle for an R. I close the red door of my apartment, turn the key in its lock, and walk to my car.

My drive takes me through Buffy St. Marie’s “Tall Trees in Georgia,” long leaf pines, sprawling live oaks, and in spring, wildflowers in the median. In winter, a steel green blanket.

By the time I reach the Macintosh Clinic, my nosebleed has stopped. The two-story, red brick building with white pillars once had another life and usually I stop to admire its architecture but on this day I’m grateful not to walk into the clinic with a tampon up my nose, although I was perfectly fine driving through 8:00 a.m. traffic.

When I tell the nurse about the nosebleed she asks, “When you were at the light, did you turn and look at people like this?” And her brown ponytail swirls from side to side as she gives me her best tampon-up-the-nose look. “I would! I’d find a cop and look straight at him!”

It is only recently I have come to know that tampons up the nose are an actual thing, medically. And on this day, I discover that my rheumatologist (and later) my primary care physician believe staring is the preferred behavior when wearing.

I tell my 90-year-old neighbor, Grace, and she, too, wants to know if I turned and looked at people. I get it, I really get it. I’m almost looking forward to the next time, for there will be one when I least expect it.

And all will be all right and all right will never be the same.

The Magic at the End of the Lane

Not long ago, I wrote a post about where magic lives, at the end of a rutted lane, canopied in cypress and live oak, a sanctuary of second chances.

It is a farm of family, no species denied. No one is turned away for being too old, too young, too sick, too maimed. Those who find their way to Second Chance Farms find home and love that lasts a lifetime.

Sometimes, that life is a short one, as it was for Phoebe Louise Dooley who died of pediatric brain cancer at the age of six. Her time on earth and at the farm was only a moment, but that’s all love ever needs to live on, as hers does in Bruno, the first Phoebe’s Foster.

Emily and Bruno

Her farm family misses the light that was Phoebe, her laughter and love of all dogs, the old and the overlooked, those so far from the ideal.  And that pretty much describes Bruno:

“It’s like he’s always been here at the farm. He is intelligent, eager to please, extremely gentle and of course–as all hounds should be–a bit stubborn and definitely very goofy. He is definitely Phoebe’s dog and just having him here helps to remind us that sweet Phoebe is still at work in this world.”

She was no stranger to the farm and understood how and why animals came to live at the sanctuary, a second chance not necessarily free from pain but a life of love nonetheless, however long it lasts.

And that’s what Phoebe’s Foster continues in Bruno, who comes with considerable medical baggage, living life as a hound, on a farm in a forest where magic lives.

Phoebe’s parents miss her every moment of every day, and this first holiday season without her is especially difficult but Phoebe was born not only out of their love but their courage. They share their daughter with the world through the works of the Phoebe Louise Dooley Foundation.

May we follow in Phoebe’s footsteps.

The Undertow of Thought

When I started meditating, nothingness was my goal. I wanted to sit in the peace of living, determined to eliminate my every thought for at least one hour every morning. Upside down and inside out thinking, of course, and utterly impossible.

Big thoughts announce themselves by snatching up space as if it only exists for them. They don’t stay long, for they require too much attention. It’s the undertow of thought, subtle and inviting, that is a constant thief. *

And what it steals in meditation, it steals in life. I miss my life when I wander with the thief, creating scenarios for existence elsewhere. In other words, nowhere.

Meditation does not jail the thief for like the undertow, it will not be defeated by brute stubbornness. Awareness is sufficient. It does not take more than that, which is not to say that mindfulness is not without effort. It’s just that it’s worth it. It’s the real deal, not a scenario.

Authenticity does not abide thieves selling snake oil, the positive thinking of nary a cloud in the sky no matter the storm raging. Mindfulness delivers life as it is and stays the would-be thieves of rose-colored glasses.

There is nothing quite like that first clear-eyed view of acceptance. Nothing. Equanimity seems not the stretch it once was. Regard for the undertow reveals more of life not less.

And nowhere in my life has that been truer than in adjusting to the various levels of chronic illness. Disease is a robber only if viewed through a lens of loss. There is no shortage of lenses in life; there is one for every moment.

It’s a matter of looking at what I have rather than what I don’t. It is how I stand in my truth, my power.

This does not happen without a bit of mental wandering with the undertow but there is a magnet to mindfulness, a groove of practice. The less that I am physically, the more I am mentally. Less function equals mindfulness magnified, more prowess with the would-be thief.

Mine is the life that many fear is inevitable in aging. Nothing is inevitable. It’s about choices. I haven’t always lived mindfully. It only matters that I do now, swimming with rather than against the undertow.

An hour’s meditation alerts me to my body’s strongest signals, setting the agenda for the day. A body in stillness is my way of stripping the drama from pain and listening to its signal, going to its core. So often, I would rather steal away but going nowhere is always a disappointment.

Both physically and mentally, I have places to be–the kitchen, the shopping, and the writing, which is increasingly tedious. My fingers cannot seem to select the correct key the first time but readily (and constantly) my hand palm finds the space bar or even caps lock.

No matter the type of voice recognition software, my word structure exasperates, especially if I consider the poetic or commit the greater sin of passive voice. There is constant correction on my screen of words trying to become sentences.

Some days, I persist just because I can but my mind tires of the stop-and-go writing and finally forgets what it was trying to say. My hands stay asleep, tingling.

I’ve had to recognize and actually appreciate that it takes me two to three times longer to write an initial draft, some days more than that. It’s a lot of additional hours.

Clear-eyed acceptance is not an easy lens but it offers options. Real ones. Should I struggle with the undertow, I am only out to sea, aimless. Best to be in the life I have, as it is, exhausted and frustrated, but not so far from equanimity.

Every Time He Shakes His Tail

I was in my late 30s, finishing my Master of Arts thesis, when I finally understood writing as a process.

Admittedly, it sounds silly but in 1986, the “how-to” of writing was threatening an academic tradition once thought unassailable, at least in the English department at a small university in the Rocky Mountains.

It was the invincibility of that tradition that drew me to academia and it would usher me out. We would both find out of what we were made. Different stuff.

For the first time in my life I was consumed by my work, in complete awe of writing. It was alive, no longer an academic exercise in research. And for that matter, neither was I.

My thesis advisor, Jeanne, was having none of “my new process” and rejected the initial draft of my thesis after reading the first two pages. No matter what I said, she would not read more.

Jeanne was a friend, ever patient with my enthusiasm, but her life was the academic tradition. She railed against the canon of “white male fact” and was integral in establishing a women’s studies program but she knew her parameters.

So, stalemate.

In response, I drank my way to sobriety and an eventual decision. It seemed I was fine with not graduating. Writing was what mattered and that has never changed.

But no story ends without a twist or two, if we are true in the telling. We cannot be part of a tradition and simply pull away without consequence for others or ourselves.

So it was that my hands were in dishwater when the telephone call came.

“It’s Jeanne,” my then partner said, stretching her arm toward me, cordless white phone in hand.

“No.”

“She just wants to talk to you.”

I shook my head and looked down at my hands in the dishwater, a master’s graduation ring on my fourth finger, left-hand, gold in suds. My mom had it sent to me. She was coming for graduation. I would not cheat her out of this degree ceremony as I had for my bachelor’s.

Other than my partner, few outside my academic life knew about the thesis stalemate or a tangential twist, my formal charge of sexism and breach of protocol against a tenured professor.

It began with a question, as these things often do. The graduate level course was American literature, 1930s-40s, and I asked why there were no women writers included. The professor told me there were no major women writers. His words reverberated throughout the department.

His breach of protocol was reading the student evaluations before submitting his final grades. The professor all but grabbed them out of the office secretary’s hand, saying he knew “they would be good.”

I was the only graduate student to challenge him in class and in my written evaluation of his course. Accordingly, I was the only one to receive a B, everyone else an A. It is the only B on my graduate school transcript.

Confident in his tenure, the professor never denied any of the charges and a committee of his peers ruled against me, which proved to be the catalyst for a department showdown.

A number of professors threatened to bring my complaint before the entire department for a vote:  to overturn my grade (copies of my coursework were made available); to end the exclusion of women writers from all courses;  to censure the professor for breaching University protocol regarding student evaluations.

The vote never happened.

The head of the department removed that course from the professor’s teaching roster. He never taught in his area of emphasis again. The student evaluation procedure was completely revamped and finally, there was a review of department courses, something many members had been fighting for, including Jeanne.

My grade remained a B.

“You can appeal this decision, of course,” the department chair told me. Very carefully, he explained the process.

I nodded, hoping my tears would not spill over. Some part of me knew my grade was no longer the point, although it had been the initial pain.

“What you need to remember is that whenever he shakes his tail, this issue will make itself known for years to come.”

And it did for the rest of the professor’s life or so I am told.

Jeanne was not among the professors who outwardly supported me but for all of us there is more than one bridge too far in life. At least that has been true for me.

Of course, those were not my thoughts as I stood at the sink with my hands immersed in what was left of the soapsuds. Mostly, I thought about the many differences between my mother and me, specifically that 1986 MA class ring.

I took the phone call from Jeanne.

I did not really “defend” my thesis but ours was a lively discussion regarding writing and women. Some 25 years later, a thesis committee member told me there was some concern about my not defending the thesis.

KMHuberImage; oneness; St. Mark's Refuge FL

Jeanne knew I would travel a road not hers but she sent me with love (and a degree) nonetheless. As firmly, she stood in her truth, too, a world of the Venerable Bede, tawny port, and women finding their own way.

In the year of Jeanne’s death, she asked me to teach a session of her graduate-level women’s studies course, the one that gave me the idea for my thesis. It remains one of the greatest honors of my life.

The last time I sat with Jeanne was in the dark hours of a Wyoming winter morning, selecting the music for her funeral, her singing “this little light of mine.” She thought it a good choice.

Me, too.

I have now lived longer than the lifespan that was Jeanne’s. I cannot imagine her in the time of Trump. She thought the 80s impossible, “the me generation.”

Not surprisingly, that last year of graduate school was on my mind as I listened to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony. Like so many other women I knew how it would end but I also kept hearing, “every time he shakes his tail.”

That, I know to be true.

How Not to Become a Zen Master

“That’s right. Blame it on Zen,” my neighbor, Grace, says.

With Zen, I just don’t hold onto names or nouns anymore was what I was thinking, aloud it seems.

Grace is a Zen master not because she is 90 but because she is contemplative in all ways. She was born to it. And she attends tai chi twice a week. Her whole life is a practice. She would never label herself a Zen master.

We were in the middle of a project that began simply enough but soon involved another neighbor. Specifically, I opened a package that was not mine.

The package was one of four I was expecting but as you can see, there are five packages. The shocking pink garment stunned but it was the thank you card that intrigued–one American meme of gratitude after another, the length of a paragraph.

I read the card aloud to Grace.

“Which company?”

“Doesn’t say.”

All these packages were dumped in the mailroom of our apartment complex on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. They were there for the taking and so I did.

It was not until I straightened the cardboard boxes Grace had so beautifully broken down with her seriously sharp knife that I saw the name on the box of great gratitude was not mine.

And now I was writing a card of explanation to a woman whose name I kept forgetting. Grace selected the blank note card, rejecting the polar bear in favor of the fir of a mountain. Appropriate for any occasion.

“Well, when you decide to get dressed, I’ll take you.” Grace was sitting on my leather loveseat, waiting, with her small knife lying next to her.

She wasn’t taking me anywhere in a red polo shirt so large and so long it was more skirt than shirt, nearly covering my khaki shorts. The logo read Elder Affairs.

I finish writing the card and read it to Grace. “That’s classy,” she says.

“I want her to know what I did in case she’s not there when we return the package.” And with that, I pick up the flat cardboard box that is not addressed to me.

“You’re not going to tape that back up, are you?”

“Trust me, Grace. Perception is everything. I’m admitting my guilt but I’m returning a taped package.”

Just another of the many ways I avoid becoming a Zen master. I was born to it.

KMHuberImage; St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge; Florida; USA

And so, we began our journey to Grace’s car. I with my three-wheeled walker and the re-wrapped package tightly cornered into my walker’s lower bag, and Grace with her walking stick in one hand and under her other arm, four cardboard boxes now flat.

Grace decided who took what. She is Sicilian. We do things her way.

We drove halfway across the apartment complex before I told Grace, “I forgot the card.” We look at one another and then, Grace turns the car around.

Again, we drive across the apartment complex and we score the nearest accessible parking spot, the one near the elevator. As we ride to the second floor, I try to channel Grace, but I am who I am. Still, my focus remains mountain.

I tell the woman what happened, as it happened, all the while holding her package. She does not take it from me.

“Do you know how many people would not even bother to do this?”

I wasn’t clear. She doesn’t realize I opened her package. I should not have taped up the box.

As I look into the kind face of the woman accepting her package, I am determined not to burst into her life but I tell her my story, again, with profuse apologies and my concern about the boxes being left unattended.

“You’re an angel,” she says. I assure her I am not and introduce Grace who smiles and stays silent. We leave.

As we drive back, Grace says, “You know, I think she would have difficulty getting to the mail room.”

“I’m no angel.”

Grace laughs.

On this day I have Grace, and for that, there are not enough expressions of gratitude in any form.

Courage in Every Size

 

 

Today’s #DailyDose features a favorite place of mine, Second Chance Farm (SCF). Regular readers may remember SCF as the sanctuary of Cooper James and Emma Rose. It lies deep in my heart as do the people who live there.

At the farm, courage comes in all sizes, shapes, years, and species; love seems to persist no matter what. To me, that’s magic. I’ve never known what really led me to the sanctuary, and I probably never will. It doesn’t matter. I found it.

I’m sharing Aim For Even’s post because I want you to meet Phoebe Louise Dooley, a true profile in courage. Hers is a story about what is best in us, so here’s the portal into “Where Magic Lives.”