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

So Much Life, So Many Lenses

Extrapolate. It’s what’s possible when truth is present, which it is not in these days of COVID-19, not completely.

As always, there are exceptions such as New York Governor Cuomo’s daily press conferences. New York is a state and a city whose Adirondack mountains and Met opera I know only virtually, now the predominate means of viewing all life. So, I extrapolate to get a view of the state of my Florida, which I once traveled up and down and back-and-forth, as I did my own city of Tallahassee. No more.

No doubt my view of the news is skewed but I have a sense of comfort, an overall understanding, and that’s enough. What happens in New York City is not the scene in Tallahassee, we don’t have the numbers, but Miami creeps closer every day, and they must extrapolate, too, because they don’t have enough tests for their own numbers. Unlike the rest of the country, New York does have tests.

It is a virus unlike any other, one that literally takes the breath away as it gobbles up the way we once lived. Now we know the meaning of what can happen when a virus jumps from another species to ours. The only way to sustain life is to stay away from each other.

Even the word quarantine has a hard sound to it, as if social distancing were a punishment, which it is not. It’s a different life lens. It’s the view we have when life changes from what it was.

I really do know something about this as I’ve been social distancing for 10 years. It happened gradually, for one health reason or another, distancing myself from large gatherings, shopping the early morning weekday hours, giving up long distance travel. My immune system is compromised as is my spinal cord. It is best for me to keep my distance, less chance of falling or getting the flu.

Acceptance arrived but it took its time, as it is wont to do. Ask anyone you know who lives a differently abled life and they will tell you that binging anything–movies, TV shows, podcasts, gaming, reading, audiobooks–is not a way of life. Each is a welcome distraction from the discomfort of being disabled but not a one is life itself.

In Randall Jarrell’s poem, “The Sick Child,” a young boy confined to bed and beyond boredom cries out, “all that I’ve never thought of, think of me!” I first came across the poem when I was teaching college English in Wyoming, a lifetime away from the moment that all I never thought of, think of me would become my mantra. Then, I was in my mid 30s believing remission was forever, as if anything ever is. Yet, there was so little I didn’t know. Mostly, I had an answer for everything because magical thinking works like that.

Now I know nothing but opening myself to the reality of each day, whatever it maybe. I cannot possibly know what I need until the day dawns, as if it were that easy. My mind will not still the scenes of who I was or where I once walked. It insists on showing.

Sometimes, it’s the crushingly cold mountain streams of Wyoming where wind will steal the breath away. None of its bouldered paths will I walk again, gasping for breath above timberline, cursing at the caught tip of my flyrod in the ponderosa pine on my way to a lake that was once snow. No less in my mind are the woodlands of live oak and longleaf pine, sandy soft roads of shell and sandstone, sabal palm, and the shores of Saint George Island.

Florida and Wyoming, so physically distant and forever together virtually, sometimes so much so it hurts and then angers. With a ferocity of focus I cry out, “all I never thought of think of me!” It’s the words on the air that make the fury fade, as the energy of emotion reorganizes, evens itself out.

Something I never thought of does comes to me, not so much life changing but a broader perspective like  Pema Chodron’s we are always in relationship, even with the insect in the room. So, a change in perspective. Tunnel vision does tend to skew. None of life is perfect. There are cracks everywhere–they’re how we cope–these streaks of hope in a time of novel coronavirus.

It’s closing the window of what cannot be and opening the door of what is, meeting reality with equanimity, no longer blind by wishing and wanting. That is viewing life through a new lens. It is the past that takes us to the door of the present but it knows its place. Here, we live. There, we remember.

So much life, so many lenses.

KMHuberImage; St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge; Florida; Gulf of Mexico

The Sour Joy of Being Alive

Not all lemons are for lemonade.

Some are made of sterner stuff–tart flesh and rind for grind–a bit of zest. Acquired taste? Maybe or a mere matter of equanimity, appreciating the lemon as is, without making it into something else.

I find the lemon fine, a new lens, a wake-up call.

Recently, I purchased a digital camera (with 42X optical zoom) and received binoculars (12×50) as a birthday gift. Why would I want either? My index fingers and thumbs are compromised as are my legs. Any outing is quite the risk so lemons abound, and no amount of lemonade will change that. And I am tired of making lemonade.

The thing is, when a lemon is around there is a chance for zest, a singular moment unlike any other; as well, there is the sour that can sap any day, maybe even change life’s course. The lens of the lemon has much to offer.

In the last few months I’ve increased my visits to local parks and to St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, where the wild ones still run but are wary of me and mine, as they should be.

Binoculars and a zoom lens bring me to them from afar. Each look is framed in forever–in my mind’s eye or a single snapshot.

There is a bite to these moments, and I don’t ignore it or make it something it is not. I don’t want to miss what the outing offers, the sour joy of being alive.

Will this be my last trip? 

I bite deeper into the lemon to capture the moment for all the days of no trips.

My first binocular view was from my bedroom window, the top of a dying but still substantial trunk of a Loblolly Pine and a pileated woodpecker so very present in its work and completely unaware of me. There is joy in not being seen, not interrupting.

That memory of the woodpecker enlarges itself every time I call it round. What was initially a day of being confined is now a memory of being in the world bitter but the lemon rind surprised with a not so sour zest.

There is a freshness to the flesh of the lemon, and I am never more present than in its presence.

The bite of the moment is just one sensation in watching a tricolor heron sitting a branch of a now dead oak in the saltwater marsh at low tide, all the while a Cooper’s hawk sits atop. As I write, the moment grows in its magnificence. Memory does that.

It was a fine lemon moment. My insect spray did little to nothing in keeping the flies from biting my legs; my arms were weak so the camera swayed as did my legs. Keeping my balance was a constant shift as shot after shot blurred or the zoom lens was inappropriate for the distance but still the snowy Egret fished the sun-drenched marsh grass.

I have come to the lemon lens late in life, grateful I did not miss it. Like the dying trunk of the Loblolly pine, there are years of life left but being is ever changing. No excuses, no explanations, no adding of sweet to bitter, just freshness with a bite, zesty. Indeed, equanimity.

The Cable Guy Meets Old

It might not have happened if the recycle dumpster had not been overflowing is what I initially told myself. But that day with the cable guy had nothing to do with the dumpster. No proverbial straw stuff. No stacking of excuses.

There are thunderheads darkening the patch of sky over my apartment complex. Everywhere and with just about everyone there is talk of moving, wanting to leave but where to go?

At 67 that’s a completely different decision than it was at 57, when I came to this wooded area of loblolly pine, live oak draped in Spanish moss, the fragrant magnolia among lilacs and dewberries. For my neighbors in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, moving is wishful thinking if they are honest and if not, well, magical then. We moved here to stay.

Two years ago, on-site management changed in this 55+ community of four apartment buildings. It’s affordable housing, allowing the corporation a tax credit, so HUD housing but not section 8. There are more differences than you would think and how it matters to some.

This is a first-time manager job for the director and her leasing agent. It’s been tough on them. They are in the prime of their personal and business lives but the residents are not business as usual. They want more than that.

The only way to know old is to be it. This is not a warning just a fact. There is no way to plan for it, which is true of any time in life, really. The fortunate get to know old, the last act, in which awareness abounds and that can be a harsh light.

Change never ages for life is impermanent, always requiring more of us, it seems, but change does not come empty handed. It offers us a different life lens, leaving the adjustment to us. These thunderheads dissipate in their own time.

Many residents have lived here since the complex opened some 15 years ago when the Internet was not quite the lifeline it is now. For many the Internet is an unwanted complexity making their flip phones obsolete. Now, it’s invaded their TV as well–management dropped the package it offered for $45 a month.

The director made the announcement without offering any information about choices residents might have, including programming or who to contact at the cable company. With unwitting transparency, the managers posted a public notice, admitting they didn’t know anything.

Then, residents were informed the cable company needed access to each apartment, whether or not residents wanted the service. New cable was strung for each apartment. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal but many of these apartments are ceiling to floor furniture, wall-to-wall.

My neighbor’s furniture is oak bookcases, bedroom dresser and chest of drawers with full mirror, two rolldown desks, and a magnificent painting of an eastern European forest in winter, stark, the length and breadth of the wall. These six and nine hundred square foot apartments hold what is left of a lifetime. That is not without its weight.

At the only meet, greet, and subscribe meeting with the cable company, residents were assured that if they signed up that day, they could avoid a $70-dollar technician fee. Maybe it was true or was a good intention gone awry, but the previous cable installation had not gone well (it was all but impossible to tell which cable belonged to each apartment), and a technician was required. It was that or no TV.

I am not a cable subscriber so it’s not my circus but it is my neighbors’. Still, I had my moment with the cable guy (I could tell that story here and almost did) but like the dumpster, it’s not the issue. Both the cable guy and I have had better moments. This time I was correct but the next time, it’ll be the cable guy. It’s not about correctness. It’s how we make each other feel, and it wasn’t good.

He started to mansplain, and I stopped him in his tracks. He was surprised, and I was not gracious. He tried to laugh when I described the furniture but I could see he was beginning to understand that people here did not move “every 2 to 3 years” as he had begun to explain. The sign outside our complex reads that we all “live happily ever after.” We don’t, of course, but we are no longer in search of that, either.

Two days later, I saw the cable guy outside my window, exhausted, sweat running down both sides of his face. His counterpart was in my apartment with a walkie-talkie, trying to figure out which cable to label. In frustration, they guessed. I am not a subscriber but by the time I leave, who knows what the technology will be.

Certain springs, owls come to mate and then leave, occasionally red-tailed hawks spend spring, too, but year-round there are the cardinals, resplendent red males and brown velvet females who let them pretend.

This year, more kits became rabbits, it seems, or they just feel better about staying around. The fireflies are fewer (I have to watch for them) as are the swallowtail butterflies but they still come. All this I watch from the window of my six hundred square foot, one-bedroom apartment.

There are many reasons to move but mine offers a window with a view and there are so few places left that do.

 

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.

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.

Monday Morning 9 AM Social

Grace and I talk a lot about community (or lack thereof) within our apartment complex. There are four buildings, perhaps pockets of community within each, but together, we are factions.

Management sends out a monthly calendar of clubhouse events. Every Monday, there is a 9 a.m. social and has been for as long as Grace and I can remember. Her memory is encyclopedic.

Grace and I share an apartment wall. As she says, “it makes a difference if you know who is on the other side.” So, we decided to find out what a Monday morning social is rather than just surmising.

We meet outside the clubhouse, telling each other how nice we look, and we do. We have brought our own beverages, mine a lime-green insulated cup and hers, a silver thermos, which she raises as she whispers, “community coffee,” a flash of the ironic in her smile.

Ruddy-cheeked and wide-eyed at the world, she is captivating at 90, 20, 50, or 70. Tai chi three days a week. At 66, I am the one with the walker and “black tea,” now conspicuous in its lack of a label for the occasion.

“What does that say about me?” I ask both of us.

We are friends with rhetorical questions, Grace and I; they usually begin or end our conversations. We have little regard for answers, they of the limited run, always replaced by another question.

So on this Monday morning we are open to what we meet in the “kitchen area” of the clubhouse, three women intensely involved in a card game using a star-shaped board with pegs.

Five bid each other “hello,” and three return to their play. Grace and I choose a table in the middle of the room, and I take my walker to a side wall. All other tables are empty.

“Is this it?” Grace asks.

“I think so.”

We had given considerable thought not to arrive early (with Grace, one is never late) but as it turns out, we were on time. We had come to be social, which was not to interrupt the game. Their chatter immediately resumed after “hello” with counting and card shuffling.

Grace and I kept our voices low as we sipped our beverages, telling stories we had left untold during the visits to each other’s apartment, when talking over the phone, or sitting on the wooden bench outside our three-story, white stucco building with red shutters.

It was as if we were meeting for the first time, and that may have had something to do with our age difference.

I look older than my years. Grace is curious but would never ask. That would be rude. Besides, she enjoys putting together pieces of life, moving them around for effect. Until Monday, I had walked around her efforts.

When Grace began, “I am not sure exactly what age span is between us….”

“I am 66 and you are 90.”

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, and she let her breath out slowly, indicating the span with a spread of her arms, her arthritic hands still dexterous. Was it a bridge too far?

“I’m a historian,” I said, wanting worth I may not have.

She tells me a story of blackouts during World War II, of many nights sitting with her bed-ridden grandfather who said, sometimes, he wanted to die. Teenage Grace telling him he did not.

“My mother asked me to do it and I was glad to do it. I loved my grandfather.”

I don’t know where in New York State that Grace’s family lived but it was closed to an air field. With a bit of pride, she tells me how quickly she learned to identify the different planes and wing spans. Hesitantly, she admits “it was all a bit exciting.”

“It is the way of children, isn’t it?” I say, as if I know, but how else to get through a world war. And I think of Grace’s teenage angst buried in the memory of bombing drills and identifying warplanes.

I don’t know that but I have been reading many World War II war novels (The Women in the Castle) and biographies like Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.I tell Grace about them.

“Well, without the women in the war…” Deftly, she drops in an ellipsis and lets it sit. “They did everything. They kept it going.” She sips the last of her coffee. “And then,” she says, as she opens the palms of her hands to the sky.

“It is time for women to come forward again,” I say. “And I think it is beginning to happen. This time, there is no going back.” I offer this with more conviction than I carry most days.

Grace looks at me for a while before offering “Yes,” with the finality of belief that won’t bend with the wind.

And this week’s Monday morning 9 a.m. social ends, much as it began. The players still playing but now in silence and with a smile, they say “goodbye.”

Like Grace says, it makes a difference to know who’s on the other side.