Into a Forest Darkly: A Moving Experience

Into a forest darkly—the act of moving household after 11 years—making one’s way through leaving and arriving, often simultaneously, with lots of bumps, bruises, and breakage at both a physical and fiscal cost. As the physical toll makes itself known in the days and months to come, the fiscal total is immediately clear, just when a bit of obscurity would go a long way.

It is a forest dark indeed.

Moving undoes daily life, which is its purpose, leaving one life for another and in-between are boxes, which are always in short supply no matter how many are ordered, borrowed, begged. Boxes become the bitcoin of the moment.

And while recycle and up cycle are the catch words of living responsibly, not everyone wants what you have to give but the best of your friends will take it as you sort pans, Christmas bulbs, and shampoo into their respective boxes, hopefully.

Those same best friends ignore your babbling and just tend to what needs to be done. Later, they brush aside your inept attempts to thank them for being the wonderful people they are. However, they warn, “Don’t do it again.” And I won’t. I am too old to walk this forest again.

I have moved quite a bit in my life, more as a renter than as a homeowner, with much the same furniture and usually books in the hundreds, sometimes the high hundreds but this move is different, the last I make on my terms. The next is nursing home or death, and I prefer the latter. On my wheel of fortune there is no assisted living.

I keep what I love deeply and only that. In books that amounts to 33, mostly nonfiction; in furniture, an antique, mahogany bedroom set of my childhood from Aunt Mary and an oak rocker from Aunt Susie, which is the one item of a temporary nature. Someday, it will reside with my brother.

For everyday living, there’s a brown leather love seat and two black mesh filing cabinets that sit below each end of an oak door painted black years ago. Atop are the books, the fountain, yoga cats, pinecones, and meditating dog. I chose carefully and thoughtfully, keeping my eye on the prize, life on the other side of the move.

I had no choice but to leave my 690 ft.² apartment. My rent was raised twice in six months; the COLAs from both of my pensions no longer come close to covering the rent of “affordable” housing. So now I am in HUD housing in a market rate efficiency apartment of 222 ft.² It’s like tiny house living in a room with a view.

I had three weeks to move, which seemed like more than enough time to sort through belongings, box up what was left, and at night, watch home design shows on Amazon Prime. My challenge was a 12 ½’ x 17 ½’ room with galley-like kitchen and pantry (eight square feet total) to fill with furniture and 23 book-size boxes.

The hourly rate for professional movers is not insignificant. Even with boxes packed, the cost was staggering but within a forest darkly the only way is through and sometimes that means delays and detours.

The movers arrived late and then took their time, which was concerning not only to me but to the occupancy specialist at my new apartment building who values promptness and a singular way of doing things, such as signing papers upon move in (not a moment earlier or later). It’s her system of 20 years and I am not that fool to question it.

While I was signing, the movers were wandering, first to the wrong apartment building and when they found their way to my 12-story building, they entered the underground entrance improperly. Underground discussions ensued as captured on CCTV. It was the kind of day when it seemed certain the elevators would go down and so they did.

Time turns only on its dime.

Ultimately, I had less than 10 minutes to look at my actual apartment before the Tempurpedic adjustable bed, furniture, and boxes turned what I had known only as a floor plan into reality.

My nights of design time were well spent as only the vanity/desk and chest of drawers exchanged places (yes, those same best of friends were again on the scene), after I was notified of a building-wide apartment inspection in three days. A neighbor’s son and daughter-in-law were kind enough to hang my wall art.

Yet, my move was not yet complete.

For reasons I no longer understand (if I ever did), I decided to combine moving to a new apartment with donating my car to PBS. So much seems possible in the beginning of any life-changing event but then reality smiles and says, “Hold my beer.”

To be sure, there was far too much back and forth of I’ll donate the car/I won’t donate the car. Oh, I have yet another someone to buy it and yet another someone who cannot drive a stick shift. I had been done with driving for some time but to be done with car ownership is to be caught in a game of bumper cars with PBS, its vehicle vendor, and the state of Florida yet no thing lasts forever, even in the Sunshine State.

There are lots of conversations with truck drivers before the actual pick up of the vehicle as dates change, messages are mixed or parking spots are taken. Regardless, the truck drivers travel back and forth from Alabama with car trailers full or not for there’s always another run.

Here in historic, midtown Tallahassee, parking spaces and street sizes are from another century; the cement street curbs are steep, vintage 1950s, met by sloping, narrow boulevards of St. Augustine grass. A semi with a car trailer stops traffic in every direction so efficacy is appreciated.

When the day finally arrived for my car to be hauled away, I was instructed to put the title in the glove box and the key where the truck driver and I had agreed.

I don’t do well with sloping boulevards so I stood at the curb and locked my Traveler (walker) in place on the boulevard, away from me, so I could use the side and front of my white Toyota Psion XB for balance—there was enough room for a feather between my car and the car in front of it—as I lifted the weaker of my legs from the street over the curb and onto the boulevard, stabilizing myself with my stronger leg still left at the curb.

I did not feel the fire ants immediately, a testimony to my focus on getting the rest of me onto the boulevard so I could unlock the passenger door, put the car title in the glove box—THEN I felt the fire ants, tossed the key somewhere inside the car and slammed the door.

Nothing mattered anymore. Nothing. I was done except for brushing off the fire ants, which is no mean feat as they go wherever they want, especially between your toes, but this was my moment, too, and I made the best of it as the ants  scrambled but not without leaving me stinging and later scarred yet all of us to home eventually.

It was weeks and days after my move began that I finally cleared the forest. In the subsequent months, a new chapter writes itself from my room with a view but sometimes I nod to the world as I once knew it.

A Beagle, a Scale, and the Weight of the World

I no longer mark my weight as a number. It’s no longer a measure of who I am. So, I have gone “scale-less,” and it is not easy for me to give up my scale. For these past ten years, my weight as a number, whether it went up or down, was a constant in my life—my scale all but a friend yet not all relationships last a lifetime.

In 2010, I was physically, emotionally and fiscally bankrupt, living with a diabetic and visually impaired beagle named Gumby. I had no idea what I was going to do other than face the world as who I was with what I had. No big pronouncement about a healthy lifestyle, no new writing schedule or exercise plan that would last as long as a New Year’s resolution.

Mine was a new life lens, a broader perspective, come with may. Oh, and three-to-five-mile daily walks that Gumby led. Putting one foot in front of the other is so much harder than anyone ever says and scarier, too. Looking through a new life lens is basic but demanding.

When I looked back to how I once lived, I didn’t turn into a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife but I lost so much ground. And I fell hard, really hard. I will always be grateful for Gumby taking the lead as I finally found my feet, and somewhere in the process, I learned Zen.

My other constant was my scale. I did not set a weight goal. I wanted to see what my body found sustainable, and I became curious about food because I wanted to like what I ate—all of the time—it seemed to me if I learned what is a starch and a fat and a carbohydrate and how I might mix all of these up with some protein, I could enjoy my food.

I experimented with every facet of my life with spectacular failure and more than one dark night of the soul but it is the joy that sustains. The thing about exploring different viewpoints—new lenses—is finding possibility in the least likely places and giving it a try, no matter what. It didn’t take long to broaden my perspective beyond total weight loss.

One day in February 2012 I weighed myself and was shocked that I was now in the 150’s after being over 220 pounds. I wrote a blog post about it, of course, and for the next nine years, maintained a weight loss between 60 and 70 pounds, except when I was quite ill and the weight loss reached 75+ pounds for a short period of time.

Did I give up some things? Absolutely. Inflammation is the biggest issue with my autoimmune disease, and I have reduced it considerably. Does that mean no processed sugar? Yes. Was it hard? One of the hardest things I’ve ever done but I fell in love with apples and blueberries and vegetables, so many vegetables.

Of course, it’s easier to look back on these years than it was to live them, and it was challenging to eat gluten-free but unless I wanted my face to break out in blisters and live with gluten belly all my life, my scale and I had to find another way. Ten years ago, gluten-free eating was a lot more expensive with fewer options and most of them tasted like cardboard. Now, not so much.

During my early childhood, between four and six years, one of my dearest friends was my cousin Larry, who was “skinny as a rail,” and I was a chunky kid called “fatso” by a favorite uncle. I can still hear his laughter and see his huge smile. He was just joking and jokes about fat people, women in particular, were pretty commonplace during the 1950s.

But context is everything. Was the nickname kind? No. But my uncle was a good and kind man, exceptionally thoughtful. If I had ever shown that it hurt me, he would’ve never said it again. He liked to tease, maybe because he spent most of his life as “sonny boy.” But that’s another story I will never really know.

We are not that far removed from fat jokes. We have evolved in our language, if not necessarily in our thoughts or actions. We’re not quite so quick with those fat labels but they are not without their euphemisms. So, we have not moved the needle that far from appearance is everything.

Fast forward 70 years later and nobody calls me fatso but my BMI tells me I’m overweight, if it had a voice with my physicians and so far, it does not. My scale and I have maintained a 55-60 pound weight loss but in the last five years, I have added three prescription medications known for weight gain—prednisone, methotrexate, and gabapentin—also, as age increases so does the waistline spread.

Not surprisingly, the idea of going scale-less provides purpose and a new lens, a way of living I’ve not tried, and the older I get, the more I enjoy the view through a new lens, perhaps the quality of “staying young” as I see in my own father, ever appreciating a new perspective with the gusto of wanting to know what comes next.

There are many ways to measure my weight such as the fit of my clothes, especially those that are form fitting and a bit tight, the shape of my face when it is more round than oval, and as I have been doing for the last ten years, being aware of the inflammation of my joints. In any moment, I know when I am carrying extra pounds without the weight of the scale. I do not lack for lenses.

Weight is a number and numbers are not nothing but neither they nor weight are the total measure of a human being, and sometimes that’s the biggest load to lose.

“We don’t eat to live; because we are alive, we eat. We usually think it’s the other way around, that we eat and breathe so we’ll be or remain alive. But no, because we’re alive, we breathe, we eat, we do.”

(Bernie Glassman, Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen, pages 9-10)

When Zero Was Not a Number

In the woods outside my window, it seems like nothing will stop this growing of green and the flurry of flashy red cardinals as they prepare their nests with their olive brown mates, who blend beautifully with the firebush, sparkleberry, and mesh of the passionflower vine. 

In spring, every day is endless.

I am not immune to all this wonder of squirrels munching on the tender leaves of a wax myrtle, a treat seemingly worth the trek from the hole in the leaning Live Oak across the longleaf pine and down the passionflower vine.

Frankly, it makes the human world pale in comparison but then, nature usually does. 

Here at the Apartments in the Woods, we have replaced watching the murderer among us with having to deal with mandatory online rent payment. Checks are no longer accepted. Not amazingly, emotions run high as if life itself, again, was threatened. 

Quite the welcome for a new manager who had been assured the online payment system for our 55+ community of 144 apartments was in effect, one of many untruths she will discover for truth is not always what it appears.

I don’t know the percentage of people who pay rent online but I imagine the majority of residents use the convenience, which was not true just a few years ago when the majority cohort was more like 75+ but no one lives forever. Nonetheless, their numbers are still sizable, including my 93-year-old neighbor, Sybil, who somehow still maintains her flip phone, despite threats from everywhere and everyone that it can’t be done. 

Although we have been neighbors (sharing a common wall) for 11 years, and true friends for the last five, I often forget Sybil is Sicilian and have to be reminded, which she does with pride. Round faced with a slight rosacea on her high cheekbones, Sybil is a clear-eyed beauty with flowing white hair, agile yet fragile as her petite body begins to fail her. 

Sybil is prone to one point of view on any subject (until she’s done with it), no matter the cost. She traces this to the island existence of her Sicilian ancestors who were faced with one invasion after another. Hers is a kind of reticence, which some have called stoicism, and with this visage, she faces all weathers.

Something like 30 or 40 years ago, Sybil decided the Internet was a passing phase and only last month did she admit that had “probably been a mistake.” 

To their credit, Sybil’s family is proceeding at her pace, in their completion of the online payment process, relying on the information Sybil provides, such as the documentation sent out by Apartments in the Woods Enterprises (AWE) for the online payment portal. 

AWE is to be commended for a streamlined and simple process. Residents who had never made any kind of online payment completed the process in about a quarter of an hour. It feels rather worldy, this being on the web, writing electronic checks for rent. 

Sybil is not so sure, although some days she sees its truth, yet when it comes time for her son, Paul, to complete the process, Sybil lies awake at night worrying about hackers, for she is well read and has an amazingly accurate understanding of the World Wide Web for someone who has only looked upon but never browsed or received an email. 

“It seems that there is still a problem with the rent,” Sybil tells me. “Paul is exhausted by all this.”

“There is no problem with the system, Sybil.” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop myself, clipped and cold. I’m tired of the conversation before it begins yet again, but I do better with “what’s the problem Paul is having.” 

“There is no place to put the routing or account number,” Sybil pronounces this as fact. “I don’t want Apartments in the Woods to have access to my checking account.” 

We have been having this conversation two or three times a day for the last two weeks, and I know where it’s going, but I also know Sybil vets her ideas with me before she shares them with her family, for reasons understood only by Sybil, but there is a lot of fear, too, always a tough subject, which is to say that I, too, sometimes get the wrong end of the stick. 

“Sybil,” I say, wincing at my tone of voice, not quite terse but close. “If Paul enters your routing and account numbers into the AWE system—

“The WHAT?” Sybil begins to talk over me, thankful for the tangent. “I don’t even know—

“Sybil, stop. Just. Stop. Talking. Over. Me.” And finally, she does. “When you write a check for your rent, isn’t the routing number and the account number on the check? Yes or no.” 

“Yes.” 

“So, Paul is going to enter that same information into the online system. It’s an electronic check rather than a paper one. That’s it. Nothing more.” 

“Okay. I’m fine with that. But we’re going to use a credit card.” 

“You do you, Sybil, but know there will be at least a 3% charge for using your card. That’s about $30.” 

“Paul says five or 10 dollars,” Sybil fires back.

“He’s wrong, just wrong.” 

We are both so over this conversation, but we both know it’s not yet resolved. Sybil is upset at herself, not for the first time, for refusing to have any kind of online presence over all those years. So many missed moments, those, but I’ve made that kind of mistake, too. It hurts.

At 93, both Sybil and her family are doing everything they can to maintain her independence. Increasingly, that means more to do for them and less for her. They love her deeply and do not mind, and Sybil is grateful, but with each task, there is one more thing out of her control. It’s such an uneasy balance for all of them.

Somewhat similarly, my body is far older than my almost 69 years, and I am ever adapting to maintain my independence. So, Sybil and I are each at an age where decisions close a door and not always does another window open.  

My heart is a bit sad that my tone of voice has been firm with Sybil—well, terse at times, if I am honest—Sybil, too, is a bit sad that she can’t write a check to pay her rent as she has always done for the last 17 years. For her generation, loyalty and consistency were just about everything in life. I get it.

As usual, I turn to Pema Chödrön to see if I can find something in her words for my frustration. I don’t want to repress it or reject it. I want to go to its core to see what I can learn from it and maybe help Sybil look at hers. In other times, Sybil has done it for me, in her own way, which is not mine.

Turns out Pema has a friend who talks about this very thing.

“As a way of working with our aggressive tendencies, Dzigar Kongtrül teaches the nonviolent practice of simmering. He says that rather than ‘boil in our aggression like a piece of meat cooking in a soup we simmer in it.’” 
Pema Chödrön

Not exactly the imagery I was seeking but I get the metaphor.

“We allow ourselves to wait, to sit patiently with the urge to act or speak in our usual ways and feel the full force of that urge without turning away or giving in.” 
Pema Chödrön

I am aware of the energy in “edginess,” or what Pema Chödrön refers to as “groundlessness,” and I find it attractive, that unknown. How to manage when I don’t have my feet on the ground, when what I know is not of worth to someone else or is not what they can yet receive, and I must be patient and listen in acceptance. 

“Neither repressing nor rejecting, we stay in the middle, between the two extremes, in the middle between yes and no, right and wrong, true and false.”  
Pema Chödrön

Most of my life I was a “fixer,” offering the obvious solution only to have it rejected because the choice was not mine to make. Not everyone comes to change the same way or at the same pace. Patience in every moment—to sit and simmer—although easier with age, it is no guarantee.

There is only one solution for Sybil no matter how many times we talk through what must happen. What is not an issue for me is a game changer for her but we offer what we have to one another, although it doesn’t feel like it’s what we need. I don’t hear anything about online rent payment until the fifth of the month, the last day before rent is late.

“I was going to have to pay almost $28 if I used my credit card!” Sybil has never been a stranger to umbrage. 

“So, Paul found where to enter the routing and account numbers?” I just have to know, which feels a bit unfair but somehow, it feels important. “He received a receipt by email, correct?”

“Well, if you can call it a receipt. It says, ‘Dear Sybil’ and then gives only my apartment number without which building. There are at least four different apartments with the same last three numbers.”

We talk about unique transaction numbers for a while, which is what is important for a transaction to take place between the two systems.

“But that’s just it. It hasn’t cleared my bank. There is no transaction.”

“Sybil, we just went through the receipt, line by line. You have a transaction number. The receipt says it was sent. That specific transaction was sent.”

“The bank has not received it. I’m going to be late on my rent.” 

“You are not going to be late on your rent because you have a receipt saying you paid it on the 29th.”

“But there is no transaction is what the bank is saying,” Sybil says, with a calm that is surprising.

That is a problem but there also seems to be a solution or maybe she’s been winding me up. I can’t say I might not do the same.

“Paul is working with the AWE manager.” Sybil pauses, pleased with her use of the acronym, and I find myself smiling. She goes on, “The account number was wrong.” 

“Did Paul enter it incorrectly?” 

“No!” Sybil snaps. Her son does not make mistakes. “I didn’t give him the zero.” 

“The what??!!” And for a moment I am as lost, if not moreso, than Sybil was when all this started.

“The zero in front of my account number on my check. I never use it. When I was in school, we were always told that zero isn’t a number. It’s nothing.”

“Let me put it this way, Sybil. Data is made up of nothing but ones and zeros.” I pause before adding, “that’s just probably adding to the confusion.”

“No, it’s not! I understand that. I’m saying that when I was in school zero wasn’t a number.”

“Zero is a number and it has value, Sybil. It may look empty but it’s anything but nothing.” We wait for a moment before I ask, “Didn’t you give Paul a voided check so he could enter the numbers?”

“Yes, but he said he didn’t need it because I read the numbers to him.”

“So, Paul had a check but he entered the numbers you read to him.

“Correct.”

“But he has now entered the correct account number into the system????” 

“I don’t know.”

This time I don’t go there. I look at the woods outside my window and tell Sybil I watched a goldfinch singing this very morning, sitting atop a still bare branch of the fire bush, yet another add to my birding life list. 

And Sybil who has taught me so much about the flora and fauna that is the woods outside my window begins to tell me yet another story about spring in some year before the Internet, when you could believe zero was not a number and not be bothered at all.

*Pema Chodron excerpts from Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, page 49.

A Murderer Among Us

A murderer lives in my apartment complex and has for the last eight years.

Marie stomped her 82-year-old mother to death, after throwing her down the stairs. Marie then encircled her mother’s body with all the things they had fought about: the gas money purse, the television set, various foods, mentholated rub. It would take some days to find both mother and daughter.

No one in our apartment complex knew about Marie’s past until recently, when she fell in love, so much so she told her beloved what happened just over 15 years ago. Predictably, he dumped Marie and then told everyone else in the complex that they could find Marie’s story online. He and a new girlfriend moved away.

The story of Marie falling in love with a man who leaves her for another is a repeat scenario, although this time there was no child that had to be given up for adoption, but falling in love seems to be the catalyst for Marie to stop taking her bipolar medication and to begin grasping at whatever story will give her oxygen: she was raped, she wasn’t raped; she’s a danger to others, she’s not a danger to others; she loves everyone, she doesn’t love anyone.

“I’m not a danger to myself or others but I guess I am” is what Marie told the judge at the sentencing hearing for her mother’s murder. Marie is and is not a danger, often simultaneously, a reality whose boundaries only she can perceive. The rest of us draw different lines in the sand that she crosses almost daily.

We call the police, record and video her outbursts and send them to the apartment complex managers but mostly, we wait until she injures herself or somebody else as she systematically destroys her own apartment.

Every day is pretty much the same with Marie. Sometimes the police come, sometimes not, and other times it’s the sheriff, whoever draws the short straw is what it feels like. “I’ll f**cking kill her (or you)” is a favorite rant as Marie asks for money or to borrow a phone that she will never return.

She is being evicted and sometimes she knows this but mostly she just tells us “this is “MY f*cking neighborhood.” We really are all she has but we don’t want her, and she doesn’t want us, either, yet we all need a place to live.

Because she’s leaving, Marie gifts her neighbors with used deodorant, perfume or dead batteries, delicately placed on the tiny shelves beneath the message blackboards outside resident apartment doors. It’s not that she’s not crying for help or that we don’t hear her. A torn window screen hangs from one of the window panels of her second story apartment, like a flag that just can’t catch a breeze.

About every four or five days, she is taken to a mental health facility where she is held for 72 hours and then released. Her own father and his wife, now in their late 80s, are so scared of her they sold their house and moved into an assisted living facility. They don’t want to be beaten to death during a psychotic outburst, and they no longer know how to help her.

With me, Marie keeps her distance. She waves whenever I drive into or out of the parking lot. I suspect she knows that eight years ago I figured out her story, when I was thinking about putting together a writers group. Marie was rather excited about it and told me her psychiatrist was, too. There are many solid reasons I never started that writing group, but it would be a lie to say that Marie was not the major one.

Eight years ago the story of Marie was more prominent on Google with pictures of the family home and sidebar stories about her activist mother. It was a tragedy, the headline read, and it still is but this time—so far—no one has died. We have two weeks until Marie leaves us for nowhere and anywhere. In either direction lies homelessness.

We do the best we can with who we are in any given moment, which doesn’t mean we choose right or wrong, even when either is evident. Life is not that clear cut, and there are always consequences. Choices are not words alone but actions, too; together, the best and worst in us.

UPDATE 4/13/21: Marie was evicted effective April 2 but not before there was a small fire in her apartment, perhaps accidentally started, perhaps not. Nonetheless, that was the last access Marie had to her apartment. In the waning hours of April 1, she sat outside her apartment, leaning against the door of what had been home for eight years. I don’t know how long she stayed, only that she is gone to the streets, maybe jail, possibly the mental health center but she can’t come home anymore.

A Country of Compassion, If We Can Keep It

In what now feels like a year that never was, I drafted a new year’s blog post. But then it wasn’t a new year anymore but more of 2020, albeit a bridge too far. Soon, 2021 overshadowed almost every year of this republic’s history with the attempted overthrow of the government, deliberately deadly and publicly provoked by a president of the United States.

We knew Trump did not lose well but we gave him sense enough not to incite an insurrection. No one had taking hostage/killing members of Congress on their bingo card, all to overturn an election that had been won fairly and soundly, one of the most secure we have had in the U.S.

Shakespeare warned us of such a man: “O, it is excellent to have a giant strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” But Trump was less a giant and more an orange balloon inflated with lies, flying the skies of the world of alternative facts, where, it turns out, Trump did not have leaving the presidency on his bingo card.

Sequim Bay, Olympic Peninsula (Paulie Jenkins)

Leaving was almost more than he could do that final Wednesday morning. More than once he looked back before boarding Air Force One for the last time, hoping that something, anything, would change but it didn’t. He had lost the presidency. In those last moments reality dawned, and the magnitude of his loss was laid bare. Within 24 hours, The Proud Boys and QAnon denounced him as “flaccid and weak.” Turns out he was not a messianic warrior but just an American citizen who was once a president.

And in this moment, I found an ounce of compassion for him, as he surveyed the waste land of his brand, all of it all his doing. Not one of his last words moved me for they were the same old lies. It was the pain on his face, the realization that he was losing the power of the presidency and the standing in the world it gave him—all that comes with being president—so much of which he never bothered to learn. Maybe that’s why he sounded somewhat presidential; he finally felt the depth of what he was losing. Even thugs have moments of revelation.

On Martin Luther King Day I found these words from a very young Thich Nhat Hanh, re-printed in an article from Parallax Press: “this country is able to produce King but cannot preserve King. You have him, and yet you do not have him.” We are a country that has produced Martin Luther King and Donald John Trump, a divide we have lived for centuries.

We are a cacophony of ideas and beliefs, opposing chasms whose common ground lies buried with truth, deep within a myriad of caverns. We fly hashtags as if they were our flag, hoping the romantic will take root and with the dawn, we will see in each other what we daily deny. These are not easy bridges we must now build. We do not lack the wherewithal but can we keep our compassion?

Living without just a drop of empathy for Trump left me empty, fertile ground for the bitter roots of snark and cynicism—my time in his wasteland—that I left with him on inauguration morning. It is ours to write “…the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history. We met the moment. That democracy and hope, truth, and justice, did not die on our watch but thrived” (President Joe Biden).

It’s hard to bring the better self to the surface every day but just an ounce of compassion will keep us afloat.

Moments That Change Everything

Perhaps on no other day is the nature of fear and fearlessness more apparent than on the winter solstice, the celebration of dark during a season given to light. Tonight, the quarter moon reveals the yin and yang of life, its phase equally light and dark.

A rather somber opening for a solstice celebration but these days are darkened by a pandemic that kills thousands—incredibly, thousands—every day. No sentence is darker than that. Yet, there is the promise of a vaccine; like the solstice it is the promise of lighter days. The science of stuff gives a glimmer of hope, and the rest is up to us.

Too given to fear, we often stay in the dark much longer than we need, not only at a high cost to ourselves but to the planet. We too soon forget that fearlessness is not being without fear but facing what scares us the most, the light of day, revealing who and what we are. Transformation. The winter solstice marks its beginning.

For over 30 years now, the winter solstice is inextricably intertwined with a quarter moon night, both black and bright, in a southwestern Wyoming town that has become known to me as Fossil. No such place really exists but the land of the fossil fishes does. There, life is in layers with occasional interruptions in the laminae—the moments that change everything—it’s a place I lived and then later it became its own story, and every December, I return to begin anew. Sometimes, I actually do.

Jillian drives west on Interstate 80, searching the brittle, white Wyoming landscape for highway marker 189. Unending waves of prairie snow-crust keep her from locating the lone highway marker, but the broad, green-and-white exit sign that reads “Fossil” is not to be missed. She turns onto a narrow, two-lane highway that looks and drives like a one-way street. This is the high plains desert, 6,900 feet, covered in glistening snow crust that will not melt until June is the last thought she allows herself before arriving at the house on Ruby Street, on the night of the winter solstice quarter moon.

In the clear cold of midnight, Jillian looks at an Independent Realty photograph that had been taken the previous May when burnt orange poppies surrounded the once white clapboard Ruby Street house now covered in a false, red brick front that sags. Nubs of native grasses dotted the wind worn grounds; seven aging cottonwoods bordered the back and sides of the corner lot. Sweeping, broad limbs of a lone blue spruce provided perpetual shade for the front porch. And facing the eastern scallops of Oyster Ridge, with its fumaroles from long abandoned coal mines, was a cherry tree heavy with blossom, magnificent in its breadth.

But this is the winter solstice and there are no blossoms, poppies, or grasses, nubs or no; just the fumarole gas plumes in the moonlight, somewhat like Yellowstone’s geysers, as they start to signal their burst. But this is not the fantasy of Yellowstone. It is life at timberline, a harsh cold beauty for the very few. The fumarole plumes will fade with the night but the gas is ever present if not always seen.

In the -2° crystalline landscape, the snow beneath Jillian’s boot all but shatters with her every step. Everything looks and feels cold enough to break at the touch of her glove so she is careful as she turns the key in the front door of the first house built in Fossil at the turn of the 20th century, the Madam’s home. Standing on its threshold, there seems a sliver of possibility Jillian has found her way home. Maybe it is the magic of the solstice with its yin and yang moon, yet in the stillness of the dark, the light swirls as she lets a life lived end and a life she has not, begin.

“Transformation always involves the falling away of things we have relied on, and we are left with the feeling that the world as we know it is coming to an end because it is” (Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening).

An Ounce of Compassion

Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object (Albert Camus).

Mount Rainier Len Huber Photo

I. An ounce of compassion is all I need.

While Trump was in the hospital those first 24 hours, compassion dominated social media (in word and meme). If we could feel for him, there might be a way through this time of Trump but that would’ve been too easy.

Before the election, I had a brief exchange on Twitter with a young woman who was wondering whether Donald Trump would gain her eternal soul. As a disabled, newly unemployed, young black woman, she had lost pretty much everything so it was to her soul she clung.

The very fact that she was asking, I offered, showed she could still feel for another being, regardless of circumstances. Compassion doesn’t require much. An ounce will do. She had this I assured her.

Compassion does not live at the surface of our emotions but at their core, an inward journey, fraught with detours and maybe requiring a dark night of the soul—or two—for truth, like light, blinds….

In almost unfathomable numbers, Americans are dying as Trump ignores COVID, desperately seeking his next gig for the money he needs almost as much as the power he craves. Republicans stay complicit in their silence. They fear life with him as much as they fear him gone. They do not seem to fear for their souls, however.

Vulnerability is what wakes us at four in the morning.

It’s what causes our hearts to race and panic to rise in our throats.

It’s where our skin wears thin, where our armor and our self-contained walls cannot withstand the truth of what’s happening.

And because of this, it is the exact place we can recognize our interdependence with all things.

This is how we become free, and it is where deep hope is to be found (Diane Eshin Rizzetto)*

Len Huber Photo

II. So, now I have a Eureka robot vacuum. I have been saving for it, initially because I truly loathe household chores of any kind but in particular, vacuuming and sweeping.

Both have become if not impossible, very risky chores to do while using a three-wheeled walker. So, I saved for “Euri,” as I have come to call him, and although I was certain I must supervise, it turns out I’m not needed. In fact, it’s best if I’m not in the room at all. Like the recliner, I am an obstacle.

It is true if you live long enough, some chores will become obsolete. Who knew there was that kind of joy.

Euri favors what I can only describe as a horizontal pattern of cleaning, not exactly a zigzag but always on alert for the most efficient cleaning angle. Sometimes his pattern is an isosceles triangle, while other times an obtuse one but always the angles are acute. There is little to none of the mundane up-one-row and down another. The corners and edges I avoided he favors.

Euri’s sensors are exact and his patience everlasting. No matter how many times he bumps into obstacles, he adjusts and adapts. And when he reaches 20% of his battery power, he returns to his docking station and recharges. He beeps to let me know he’s “home.”

The other day, Euri discovered the area under my bed. I had hoped that would not happen but he is not to be denied when he’s in the room. It wasn’t too long before Euri stopped, the signal for me to empty his dust cup and clean his roller, which I did and then returned him to duty. But he’d had enough and returned to his docking station. After all, it is dark under my bed, the dust is deep, and sometimes, monsters be there.

The intelligence may be artificial but its application feels human. Our interdependence with all things…is how we become free, and it is where deep hope is to be found.

Perhaps I will yet find that ounce of compassion.

Kristin MacDonald Photo

 

* Excerpt from Deep Hope: Zen Guidance for Staying Steadfast When the World Seems Hopeless by Diane Eshin Rizzetto, pages 13–14.

Life Turns On a Left Ankle

Change doesn’t care how it occurs. It just arrives. Any fall will do at any speed, at any time, anywhere. Sometimes, life turns on an ankle. For me, it was the left one this past July.

My fall was slow-motion, body meeting cement, but the landing was hard and decisive, buttocks pounding the pavement like a hammer hitting a nail. My head lay stuck in nearby shrubs, my legs perfectly perpendicular to the sidewalk.

I’m broken. I feel it in my core…

I try to turn my left leg, and I almost faint from the sensation. I won’t walk away from this, not on my own. I call 911 and for a moment or two, the operator and I have a conversation about buttocks and location. Why not?

Both of my hips are titanium, which I mention because titanium doesn’t react the way bone does. Like the bubble in a carpenter’s level, titanium hips are ever in search of balance—for themselves—if not for the rest of the body.

The EMTs help me stand, a glimmer of hope that fades quickly.

They are so-o-o-patient with me as I keep saying “but my apartment is just around the corner,” and they are amenable but my body’s core will not give up one step. Hours later in a hospital bed I will learn I have fractured the left ring of my pelvis, top and bottom, but in the arms of the EMTs, I think it’s my titanium hips, which are in perfect balance, and I am not.

If I sound ungrateful for my titanium hips, I’m not. They have kept me pain-free and mobile for years but they are not of the body, only an imitation. As well, I don’t have full feeling in the bottoms of my feet or in my legs for that matter. I’m a house of cards that collapsed.

Being in hospital in the time of COVID was as bad as I had read. Maybe worse—controlled chaos—the beginning is the end. Staff do their jobs and don’t complain—that’s a luxury they don’t have—their faces aged in angst over people refusing masks as they beg for life.

Mine was the day to day healthcare experience of arriving by ambulance and when it was time for me to go to rehab, another ambulance with compassionate EMTs. Trump may have COVID, but he has no idea of the dreams it has taken from healthcare workers or all the years they won’t live.

I hoped to avoid rehab but even with a walker I could not manage to reach my hospital room door until the fourth day. I could not take up a hospital bed any longer. Probably overstayed my welcome the way it was. I had hoped to go home but I could not yet care for myself so it was rehab.

Using a walker was not the usual slow stroll, shopping cart experience. Anything but. It was almost a hop except hopping was not allowed. Any tortoise would have zipped passed me.

Gingerly, I would step forward with my left foot, keeping no more than 50% of my weight on it (and less was better) as my right foot brought the rest of me, with the aid of both of my arms pushing down on the sides of the walker. Ideally, I’d keep all my weight off my left foot but my spinal cord damaged arms could not do the lifting. Literally, they just didn’t get the message; theirs is a pins and needles world, full of white noise, the static of nerve damage.

Every physical therapist had a variation on this hop-but-don’t-hop technique, and each was skeptical about me even attempting it. I hadn’t been given an alternative. When I wasn’t in physical therapy, I worked through the physics of the weight and the walker, how I might shift my body.

“You’re going to need to bring about 100 pounds with you on every step,” one physical therapist told me, midway between my bed and hospital door.

I looked up at her. “You and I both know that’s not going to happen.”

“Don’t hop,” she said, turning away so I could.

Even when I got the weight distribution right, the pain in my arms and neck brought tears to my eyes. All of my autoimmune meds had been stopped in order for the pelvic bone to heal so I was in a full flare of Sjogren’s/ inflammatory arthritis for 10 weeks.

And pain meds never came on time, sometimes not at all. I never asked why. In rehab it was better, and we found a “cocktail” of meds that worked for my daily physical and occupational therapy sessions. We met three times a day and I welcomed those sessions so I could learn to sit, stand, and not hop. My main physical therapist had at least heard of degenerative cervical myelopathy. Occupational therapy, no matter which therapist, was always interesting.

Mostly, I was patient. Mostly….

The occupational therapist pulled out the bottom drawer of a wooden chest of drawers and told me to pick up three items of clothing (socks or underwear) with a reacher or grabber.

“This is ridiculous. Why would I keep my socks or anything I regularly wear in the bottom drawer? Why would I do that to myself?”

“You don’t keep clothing in a bottom drawer,” he said, not believing me.

“No, I don’t. That would be stupid.

 “I don’t have the fine motor skills to use a grabber, which you know. I arrange everything in my apartment where it is easiest for me. Everything. I don’t have that kind of energy to waste.”

We would not meet again, to the relief of both of us, I suspect.

At every day’s end and every morning, I listened to Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, a book I am never without. At some point, a sentence or section centers me and I am able to look through the new life lens I have, which is not to say the darkness does not stay or the light does not blind. I’m just able to open myself to them, regardless.

When I left rehab, my mobility was 50% weight-bearing, but a wheelchair would be my legs for a while because my right leg was weakening. I wanted out of rehab but when I thought of home, I couldn’t see it. I didn’t know what that life there looked like now. What I feared most had happened, and I didn’t know if the fear would ever go away.

I “hopped” about the apartment trying to figure out what to do about anything but nothing seemed the obvious choice. Finally, I found specific placements for the wheelchair and the walker, for there was no mobility without one or the other. This wasn’t my first rodeo with either walking aid—I had lost the angst and vanity about using them years ago—I wondered whether I lost my enthusiasm for walking as well. That first night home was one of the few times in my life I felt alone so I sat with it, stripping back the layers of pain to see what was at its core.

Sometime during those early morning hours, I discovered Netflix’s In The Dark. The irreverence of character Murphy Mason is magnificent. She’s blind and sometimes uses her disability to get people out of her way because she has a life to live. Besides, she’s usually doing what most people are too afraid to try, much less actually do.

Later that same day, I met the physical therapist who would treat me twice a week for the next six weeks. Like Murphy Mason, she had no time for soft words, just kind actions, even if they didn’t seem that way at first.

“We’re going to stop all this hopping. That’s ridiculous.” She spoke with the force of a woman who knows her mind. “You’ve got a broken bone and it takes three months for a bone to heal. For the first two weeks bedrest and the wheelchair.”

“The two Murphys” set the tone and pace of my therapy. We did more work in two days than I did in 10 days in rehab, building up my strength by working with spinal cord disease rather than against it. We were irreverent in our approach but serious in designing how I would live in my apartment and in the world. We worked with what we had and made a life whole again, different but vibrant, nonetheless.

Change will come. As always, it is just a matter of who determines what that change will be.

Winona LaDuke
Sunbeams, May 2020

A World Away

Some days I live as a hologram of pure light, weightless life walking white sand trails of ancient, longleaf pine forests to sit at the river’s mouth where pirate ships once anchored.

That is my current hologram moment. I have as many as my mind’s eye can conjure but most days my meditative state is anything but light, without the weight of life and its constant questions, and that is how it should be, full of potential and exhausting. Sometimes, I just need to be a world away.

Nearing the end of my sixth decade I “no longer wander lonely as a cloud” with Wordsworth “when the world is too much with me” but rather, I look to video games and holograms. Never would I have imagined my 19th century romanticism–with all its possibilities–giving way to 2020, the year that may never end, but here I am.

Maybe the future is holograms. It has been said before. And it is attractive in a time of pandemic that is revealing every one of us for what we are not, beings of light. We are not burdened by compassion but by its lack. In the United States we are raw by our history of white people taking from people of color, century after century.

Will we finally own our history and tell it all by including everyone who was there so we can learn who we really are? There is no future if we do not own who we have been. The history of humanity is proof of that. History is not about statues being pulled down (or put up), renaming streets/bridges–most symbols have a use by date–slapping on new labels will not bring back the dead or undo the deed. Statues and streets are not history. They mark moments, mostly inaccurately, it seems.

How we live with each other is our history. It is what we pass on to the future, and it has been a heavy load for each generation. There is no reason to pass on a burden. Never has been. Every once in a while, we realize that and decide to do something about it. Once again, we have an opportunity to lighten the load for the future by embracing equality as what defines the social order. There is no justice without it.

I am of that 60s generation that changed so much and failed to do so much more. All I know is it takes generations to change who we are, and it’s worth it to stay the course.

Some days I live like a hologram, light and unfettered, as if I were the outlier branch of a bush, catching the first bit of a breeze–life as it arrives, a current breaking stillness–before it makes its way through every other branch and leaf.

You’d think we make time for such moments, but we are too busy living in the past or the future, ignoring what is possible in the moment we have. We lack the solidarity to wear a mask to keep each other safe. It is not compassion that is the American burden but our exceptional individualism, and it is proving to be a killer.

On Twitter, a woman told me that 28 minutes of sunshine would kill COVID-19. Months long quarantines are the worst thing for the body, she said, so she would be spending her time on the beach, building up her immunity naturally while the rest of us live or die.

I don’t mind wearing a mask and didn’t before I was introduced to the “buff” by my friends at Musa Musala. When I’m not using it as a mask, I wear it as a neck scarf, and in the winter I may wear one as a beanie. On days that I am a hologram sitting by the river, it is my pirate head scarf.

Change offers us a lot to explore when the landscape we knew is no more. We’re given a new life lens for new lands. Life is not as it was. This has been happening to humanity for tens of thousands of years but the world is smaller than ever now and the planet nearly exhausted by life.

I wear a mask because I hope for humanity–still. I may be even more determined than I was in the 60s, not to be in the forefront but to support those who are. This is the time for their ideas for it is their world. I know some of what they feel and why they fight. For me, most of the letting go of life has happened but its image remains, “super realistic” like the hologram, life through light.

Living Too Close to the Sun

I am too close to the sun, simply by being alive, and I am feeling the burn. It’s a deep heat, a red so bright my eyes are the blue of the sky. At 67, I no longer have bright eye color not that I ever did. Mostly, I remember my eyes being either blue or green on any given day but in living too close to the sun, they have gone blue.

These blue eyes are the best of the burn, although color in my face is a welcome change from the pale, drawn look I have known for years, for all kinds of reasons. Yet in the days of the pandemic that encompasses the globe, I find color. The life lens, no matter its view, never fails to surprise.

Medical personnel are none too sure why I am changing color but they do not lack for theories. As if to impress, I’m told I would’ve been welcome at any emergency room as my face was the size of a pumpkin, albeit a red one. Still, a single corticosteroid injection reduced the swelling and lightened the red from raspberry to watermelon but still I feel the burn and the itching, always the itching.

After 40+ years of autoimmune disease, this is my first burn, which is rare. It’s not hives or urticaria but a burn from everyday sun. It’s not as if I was trying to fly, like Icarus, spreading my wings or as if I found the sun every day. Nope. More than likely, methotrexate triggered photosensitivity but there are other symptoms like difficulty swallowing and muscle weakness so imagine both muscle and spinal cord disease or myopathy and myelopathy. Or don’t.

My mind does not go there and for right now, neither do the blood tests. And after some weeks, my burn has grown pale but I like to think my eyes are still sky blue. Probably they’re not but I’m trying to salvage something from this.

I may never know what triggered the blue sky of my eyes but it’s good to know a face of fire can be a good light. No fever, just fire, which seems counterintuitive but then, this is the time of viruses jumping species and a president talking about disinfectant injections.

It’s a time of contradictions, when what we have known no longer works. We are beyond thinking outside the box because…no box. Burned, probably. And where does that leave us or with what for that matter.

I’m thinking of Pema Chodron’s belief that most of us will not give up on one another, no matter the crisis and no matter how bad the behavior. And it has been bad by many but not by all. There is a common core of good, a love of life larger than the oxymoron of carrying a gun for civil rights–an element of life that knows not the burning of the sun but the light of courage, which is in larger supply than you might think.

Courage does not rouse the rabble but works its way through the rubble of the unprecedented, neither for the faint of heart nor for guns. Civil rights do not move forward behind a gun but with each heartbeat of belief in a better world for all. We can learn to live differently or swagger with guns waving.

We have a rare opportunity to begin anew, maybe the last chance for our species. Change does not mean burning all we have been and rising from the ashes like the phoenix. It just means not living too close to the sun but with eyes the color of the sky.