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Wet or Dry, the Dish Is the Work

I felt as if I were joining up with the past tense as my father slipped slowly through the veil of the present. We were 2000 miles apart in that moment, both of us asleep only to awaken in different dimensions.

My version of Edward Lorenz’ chaos theory, I guess, where my being asleep meant I would waken much as I always do but my father would discover a dimension beyond definition. I am now and he is forever there.

For every generation that passes so does a way of life that will never come again. No two moments or movements ever repeat, not exactly. They become history, the story of us, if we write it as it happened. Certainly, similar stories, events, and fashions reappear but Groundhog Day is entirely cinematic.

My dad’s generation had a work ethic of “showing up, no matter what.” He did not retire until he was 88, a man of extraordinary energy even in the last days of his battle with pancreatic cancer. He met each day with all he had. That was his work, I came to realize, much moreso than being a real estate agent or a geologic draftsman. Meeting the day mattered, no matter what.

I can’t say that my father’s work ethic was a fit for me—maybe I just didn’t have the shoulders for it. My adventures were not his, of course, his work ethic but a beacon, showing me the teeth of treacherous waters. I dashed more than one ship there—too foolish to be afraid—until I came to clarity, my constant through any storm. That became my life’s work.

Clarity, peace of mind, contentment, living in the moment—whatever words fit—is confining the mind to the task at hand. Wash the dish, dry the dish stops my ego from flashing past-future, future-past with scenarios that are nothing but a time suck. The dish is the moment, wet or dry. The flashbacks of “what if” will neither wash nor dry the dish. In fact, the dish may break from inattention.

One of the first things I learned in Zen Buddhism was the Buddha’s teaching of “all of life is suffering, and all I teach is the end of suffering.” I didn’t get it. What did he mean by suffering? And when it ends, then what? I am enough of my father’s daughter to want boundaries.

So, I went in search of the teaching, slowly stripping my being to its core, my suffering evaporating, thought by thought, as once again my father’s work ethic revealed itself: show up every day, no matter what. Ride the waves of the horrific and the humble without the “what might have been” scenarios of the ego. After all, they never happen. Life does.

My father may have peacefully passed but the ensuing ego whack-a-mole was one judgment after another. A dear friend reminded me of “the work” of Byron Katie, a way to unravel any thought my ego offers me—with four questions and a worksheet—a dismantling of my ego’s neat and tidy judgments that by now were an impressive pile.

 

Life is layered until it isn’t.

I faced my ego whack-a-mole with a completed worksheet and watched a few of Byron Katie’s free weekly events. The suffering surrounding my father’s death wasn’t that he died or that he had cancer. It was what was happening because he had died. If I did not sit in the stillness of clarity, I faced years of running down rabbit holes and probably a lot of broken dishes in my inattentiveness to wash the dish, dry the dish.

In his fight against pancreatic cancer, my father believed that massive doses of chemotherapy were his best chance at life. It was a longshot, this belief, but it gave him a way to define each day. It was “his work,” his kind of inquiry into the life he had left.

My father would live eight months, increasingly aware that his decision offered options he may not otherwise have known. He found joy just sitting in the stillness, listening to life, sometimes opening an eye to the waters of Puget Sound. He said his daily rosary contemplating its mysteries, as if they were anew.

“I should not have done as much chemotherapy,” he said to me one day. His tone was matter of fact, thoughtful, without regret. Inquiry only illuminates. His determination to live gave way to the love and wonder of just being alive until life waned.

“I don’t want to live anymore,” he told me in one of our daily conversations. And we discussed what he wanted to happen next. He would no longer be wheeled to his living room chair from the hospital bed that hospice had provided. Within a matter of days, his life force returned to the energy that animates us all.

His body was consumed by the cancer but his mind remained one of inquiry, a summons of courage to face reality and find the possible in the impossible until life no longer is.

As for me, I wash the dish, dry the dish. I do “the work.”

Owning the Outrage in a World of “Hold My Beer”

(Note: For those who prefer my posts that are more Zen than bite, you might want to give this one a pass. Then again, stay. We cannot keep walking away from one another, especially here in the United States. So, sit a spell. Have a beer or a coffee, and at the end of my say, I’ll hold your beer, your coffee—whatever—while you have your say.) 

In her book, Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World, Pema Chodron writes that there is a group of resilient people who never give up on the world.

Hold my beer, Pema.

I doubt even Margaret Mead would think that a small group of thoughtful people can change what is coming to fruition in the United States. It’s well-thought out and the result of decades of planning, pretty much religion wrapped in a flag. I suspect the truly thoughtful (and no doubt resilient) have left the planet, having hijacked Elon Musk’s SpaceX for other worlds.

Not being among the most thoughtful, Musk is too busy enjoying “former guy” status as the soon-to-be—or not—war lord of Twitter. Of course, there are so many brilliant billion-dollar distractions for Musk that nothing is a loss or maybe it’s all a loss.

We have met the enemy and it is us. In an increasingly fascist world, democracy seems too hard. And anyway, how bad can a fascist regime be? That remains a legitimate question for far too many people in America, old and young. In our classrooms, the already whitewashed US history is being replaced by snow white fairytales. Will this bring back knights in tights and chastity belts?

Hold my beer.

The fencing is up around the building of the United States Supreme Court, in anticipation of the court’s archaic ruling regarding reproductive rights for women:   they have none is the majority opinion of the court. In response, some state legislatures, eerily echoing one another, are enacting laws making any abortion for any reason a criminal act. In Louisiana, they wanted abortion to be considered a homicide but the bill died in withdrawal.

The leaked court opinion sets aside precedent, opening the way for aborting all civil rights—sexual orientation, interracial marriage, voting. What woman wouldn’t wear a chastity belt (modified for sex toys because girls gonna have fun). Minnie Mouse is leading the Disney charge.

And speaking of Florida, any sexual orientation or skin color other than white cisgender cannot be mentioned in elementary education, which also abstains of any meaningful sex education. Governor DeSantis calls special legislative sessions as often as the former guy twerked at his rallies. Yeah, those knights in tights.

Hold my beer.

As in a Dar Williams’ song, I am viewed “like my country in the eyes of the world.” Forever the ugly American, it seems. From sea to shining sea we are either privileged or poor, partisan or bi-partisan, and owners of the biggest arsenal of destruction on the planet to ensure the American way, which is a democracy dying, because we cannot be bothered to vote in Every. Single. Election.

Here’s to the Ukrainian people who know democracy is worth being fire-bombed Every. Single. Day.

It is coming to pass that authoritarians/oligarchs are owning all of America much like they once “owned the libs,” who have spent far too much time jousting at the outrage windmill. Witness the recent symbolic vote in the United States Senate to codify abortion. What do you get when you own the outrage? I’m old enough to remember when Don Quixote was required reading.

There is no majority of Americans, in any poll, that agrees with the soon to be rendered Supreme Court opinion regarding Roe v. Wade but will the American people storm the 2022 primary season demanding to know every single representative’s stand on women having the right to make their own decisions about their bodies? It’s a yes or no question, needing no muddled meandering. It’s not a Left or Right answer, just a yea or nay on a human right.

If people who can get pregnant do not have control over their bodies, there is no freedom in America for anyone. Every civil right is at risk with the striking down of the Roe v. Wade precedent. Every. Single. Civil Right. And every American owns this failure. Maybe we never deserved our republic for we are certainly doing everything we can to lose it.

If I am wrong, I will lead the cheer, loud and long, for I have loved my country, and I am old enough to remember those halcyon days, idyllic and ill-informed as they were.

Hold my beer.

So, now that the bite is out of the way, here’s the Zen I have left—to live in the eternal present. Of course, that is what we all do, aware of it or not, but it’s not what we believe so it’s not what we do. Like living in a democracy and keeping a country from going off the rails, maintaining a Zen practice is hard. What to do is basic but it won’t work without commitment and dies in complacency.

We must meet each moment as it arrives. It’s not ours to control but to stay open to what it reveals. The moment is all we ever have, and we are not guaranteed the next, and in that is incredible power, the energy to effect change rather than owning the outrage windmill in protest. Want peace of mind, enlightenment?

Hold my beer.

Here is a Zen hack: peace is not a location or a destination. Peace exists in every moment if we stay open to what is occurring, doing the best we can with the options we have, immersing ourselves in what must be done. Moments are met completely or not at all.

My emotions are all the tools I need so a Zen practice is cost free. Mostly it’s remembering to immerse myself in what I’m doing, that and only that, rather than going along with my mind’s suggestions, which are myriad. Life is a lot of facts with sharp edges but even on my worst days of staying present, it’s better than jousting at a windmill grinding.

Now, I’ll hold your beer.

The Flipside View of Life’s Turning Dime

I am in the throes of physical therapy for my lower back, specifically a right side L4-L5 disc herniation. This is not my first rodeo (but my fourth) that the disc between these two vertebrae has spilled onto the nerve root. So, yeah, we have history.

In 2010, this same disc spilled over on the left side and sent me screaming to the Emergency Room (ER). A dear friend was good enough to drive me and let me lie down in the backseat of her car, leg straight up, foot planted on the car ceiling (I’m short).

Upon arrival, the ER attendant said, “Why didn’t you call us?”

Money is the short answer but more importantly, I had no clue about pain, going to its core and stripping away all the drama to reveal the root cause. I didn’t know life turns on a dime and voila! A new life lens whose view is nothing like the flip side.

That night I was remembering what had happened in the emergency room in 2003 when the disc squirted a bit more of itself onto the nerve root. I was given a hefty pain medication injection and sent home with enough pain pills to get me to the orthopedic surgeon who did the same surgery as he had done in 2000.

The 2010 flipside view proved a new life lens is just that, new. For reasons not clear to me or to my friend, the ER attending physician decided I didn’t have a disc herniation so I had no pain. After a while, I think he offered me a tramadol, something I scoffed at because I had tried that at home.

To be fair, I don’t think there’s any medication that stops nerve pain at its source, and the physician may have said something to that effect but I was in full fight/fear mode, and we were there for hours while my fear raged. I have since discovered that heat and a hefty dose of prednisone helps most but a nerve on fire, pinched in a disc spill over, will have its day.

At some point it was decided I would have an x-ray. I wasn’t about to let any ER personnel help me onto the x-ray table but, of course, I couldn’t do it. To this day, I remain grateful to the radiology techs who were quick to help. I would lie on that table for quite some time after the x-ray was taken.

In the radiology tech booth there was a lot of repetitive discussion.

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Yes, she does.”

And then more of the same medical jargon before the attending physician shouted, “What do you mean there’s a (medical jargon with swears)! There can’t be!”

And the radiologist explained the X-ray results again to the attending physician who responded, “She can’t have!”

“Yeah, she does,” the radiologist said.

After I had been returned to my ER cubicle, the attending physician stuck his head around the curtain and said, “So, you’re Huber?” Neither my friend nor I could have anticipated that question; one or both of us agreed that I was.

Immediately, it was apparent that the attending physician thought I was someone else. It would be another emergency room physician who would explain about the herniation and provide me with a prescription.

Before we left, the initial attending physician made a bad situation even worse by kissing my hand and offering a groveling apology. I’m still amazed that I did not go off on him but my friend and I were tired and hungry, and my pain was better—maybe because I was vindicated, maybe because my fear subsided, maybe because….

Within a few days, I would have my third surgery, and the pain would be gone. I do remember the neurosurgeon saying “no wonder, no wonder” regarding my pain, and he cleaned up the mess the orthopedic surgeon had left in 2000 and 2003.

In 2022, the jelly has spilled out of the disc doughnut yet again. I am needing the same surgery by the same neurosurgeon, a 40-minute procedure. However, he’s also offered that “about 87% of these” (herniations) resolve themselves.

The pain did not send me screaming to the ER—just a lot of stay-at-home F-bombs—so impossible to ignore, and in the beginning so severe, I had to use my wheelchair any time I cooked or did the dishes. Standing was almost impossible so getting into my tub/shower was out of the question. It was bathroom sponge baths and washing my hair at the kitchen sink, while sitting in my wheelchair for about two weeks.

Still, I am reluctant to pursue a fourth laminectomy so I am playing the neurosurgeon’s percentages but without Sue, my favorite physical therapist who has seen me through two hip replacements and a fractured pelvis. However, she did do the initial physical therapy (PT) intake.

Ours was a long conversation, and the flipside view of this turn of the dime was once again not what I expected.

Sue all but said I should have the surgery followed by physical therapy (PT) rather than PT and then surgery.

“I have history with laminectomies, remember?” I start to tell her the 2010 ER story and she waves me off.

“This pain once sent you screaming to the emergency room, and with you, that’s saying something,” she says, and then checks off boxes on her tablet.

“But then, I did not understand the nature of pain,” I start to explain and stop. Zen is… otherworldly to her, so I say, “I have a neurosurgeon who is suggesting physical therapy and a physical therapist who is suggesting surgery.”

Sue doesn’t disagree before she explains, “We don’t really know how to fix backs—not medicine, chiropractors, physical therapy, or acupuncture.”

I nod. I have tried them all, even naturopathy but I keep that to myself.

“We treat symptoms with a 50-50 chance for success. In comparison, the success rate for knee or hip replacement is 96%.” Sue throws up her hands as if to say, get it?

She knows I have wrapped my head around that 87% figure of this herniation resolving itself with physical therapy and the few yoga poses I can do. As in 2010, I’m not seeing that the dime has turned but Sue has.

In what appears apropos of nothing she says, “You know with myelopathy all bets are off.”

I nod. My spinal cord is short circuited— it has dead spots in places—a daily mystery as to what nerves will fire when or if at all.

“At some time, whether it’s today or years from now, you have got to get a power wheelchair,” Sue says. And I know she says this with 30+ years of experience as a physical therapist who truly loves her profession.

Using the manual wheelchair is exhausting and not a good fit with the nerve damage in my hands and arms. And it’s heavy for my friends and Lyft drivers to maneuver. A lightweight, foldable power chair would take me to my apartment building lobby to get my mail, allow me to take my recycle items to the bins, keep me out and about without the constant concern of falling.

My gut tells me Sue’s right but her words land with a thud. I didn’t think I was “there” yet and why does that bother me so much? It feels ableist because it is. It is eerily reminiscent of the ER attending physician only this time, I’m the one with the attitude.

“Maintaining my independence is based upon my not falling,” I say, as I look at Sue who clearly has nothing more to say.

A power wheelchair will mitigate the risk of falling just as my three-wheeled walker still does but myelopathy is progressive so it…progresses. A disc herniation is a distraction, a weakness with no spinal cord involvement, but nonetheless a signal of the flipside view of life’s turning dime.

Where We Are All Alive Always

Recently, I was reminded I have been blogging for 10 years as of this month. It doesn’t feel that long any more than it feels like I am in my 70th year. Once I would have been world weary with the passing of a decade and getting older—I would have put it in a box and labeled it—agonizing over the passing of time, as if I did not live in the eternal present. But that’s fear for you.

When I began blogging I was terrified of putting myself out on the Internet, especially my writing. What did I have to say that had not already been said (and no doubt much better than I could). I was trying to define what was possible, as if I had that kind of power, when all I had to do was wake to the world as it is.

Despite all the fear, I was determined to have a post published on January 1, 2012 so I posted Andrew Marvel’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress”; the opening line is “had we but world enough and time.” It was not me actually writing but it was a blog post published. I had to begin where I was as I was, not that I knew that at the time.

And there was something else about 2012 that was important. It was the year the world would end, according to popular Mayan calendar conspiracy theorists. After all, it was on the History Channel so it had to be true. So, it could be a short blogging experience—there was that—but the Mayan calendar possibility worked neatly into yet another version of a book I have yet to finish. So many signs, so little time.

Early on, I found the structure of the blogging challenge, a Round of Words in 80 Days, quite helpful. I had to publish my writing goals, whatever they may look like—daily word count or number of writing hours. I tried all the strategies but what worked for me was blogging regularly. Still does.

About seven or eight years into blogging I added another blog, aimforeven.com, because I wanted to explore, specifically, the idea of living evenly, not to settle for mediocrity but to live with an open heart, constantly mindful of life, digging deep into change and what it offers.

I thought I might write a book about aiming for even, if it worked for me. It has. As for the book, I have shelved it for that other book that never goes away and is making yet another appearance. My 70s feel like the years I will write my books, and I put that down to blogging, the constant flexing of the writing muscle. It’s not about the fear of finishing or self-publishing that stalls me.

In these last seven years, there have been so many new health scenarios. First there was one hip replacement then another, some of my cervical vertebrae needed to be fused, I fractured my pelvis, and now I am dealing with what appears to be a herniated disc in my lumbar area (I’ve had this happen three times), and I cannot stand long enough to take a shower.

I have ordered some durable medical equipment for the bathroom, and I am now outfitting my wheelchair to accommodate my package and mail pick up in the lobby of my apartment building. This is the stuff of getting older, being offered new lenses through which to view life, and the adjustment takes awhile. In the meantime, awareness is key.

And yeah, I aim for even. Living evenly gives me space no matter how little there may appear to be. It’s great for the tough stuff in life, those moments that take the breath away, especially when it involves the ones we love most.

My 90-year-old father is living with stage four pancreatic cancer. It’s been hard waiting for the diagnosis that the early scans made obvious. Dad says, “Well, the first day I blubbered, but then I decided to get on with it.” He knows there will be more days of blubbering, as he calls it, but he also knows that no one is guaranteed tomorrow—not a one of us—so we might as well dig deep into today to see what it offers. And that’s what he does and has done all his life.

Being 90 is just a number to Dad for he has always been so much younger than his years but he rather likes the idea of living to 100. There is something to be said for having lived all the days of a century and staying curious about life, as my dad does. At 88, he decided to retire to do other things beyond being part of the everyday work world. Not surprisingly, Dad was onto something.

A New England Journal of Medicine study, published in 2018, revealed the years of 60 to 80 as being our most productive. My father has certainly proven that to be true so it may be that that 90 to 100 are our prime retirement years, whatever that may look like. I remember reading about a writer who thought his most productive writing years were in his 90s. He was 104 and still writing.

In a sense we have “but world enough and time” if we live in the moment we have, immersed in what the day offers, unconcerned about the past or the future, for no one lives there. No one. The eternal present is where we are all alive always.

Life as a Pirate: A Love Like No Other

Note: Regular readers may recognize the picture of these four young pirates or remember a bit of the previous post but writing, like memory, is a collage of images—the who, what, when, or why—jostling for time and space. Each revisiting reveals another perspective. 

It is Dad who turns me into a pirate for Halloween. Particularly impressive is the way he ties that scarf around my head, perhaps the last time I ever wear it. I was not a girly girl. I don’t remember what we used for my pirate sash but it was impressively blood red and ran to my calf. I doubt I told Dad how impressed I was or whether I even thanked him for this moment that was so good for both of us. And my mustache has a bit of a French flair to it, doesn’t it? I looked good!

Yup, that’s me on the far right.

My mom uses pinking shears to create my black eyepatch. She knew her way around any piece of cloth. I wonder if I thanked her. Probably not. If nothing else, I was consistent in my thoughtless pre-teenage angst.

It is a financial stretch for my parents to buy black, corduroy slacks (as my pants were called) but they read the Halloween invitation dress requirements carefully. This is my first slumber party, and my parents like these girls—a lot. Maybe what they like most is who I am when I am with them. Sometimes, I bring the glow of their friendship home with me.

All four of us are 12 in 1964. We have been in junior high for two months.

Maurya is the witch with the fading pirate mustache. She had always been a witch for trick-or-treating but for us, the mustache. She was so good at making a witch and a pirate work together, as if they always had. She did that kind of thing all her life.

And the witch-pirate is the reason this is not a Halloween post anymore.

Maurya exuded equanimity, and I suppose in our own way we knew that; I would not have known the word but the other three, probably. It’s just that she seemed to know everything without ever seeming to know everything. Who would not want to stand in the light of that witch-pirate?

Nancy is the pirate next to Maurya. Then Jeré, the party host, next to me.

For reasons understood only by junior high girls, we will not remain friends with the party host. Even Maurya was not too enthusiastic about the way Jeré popped the bands of the braces on her teeth—food on the fly. It probably was uncomfortable for Jeré, as she said, but it made Nancy gag, and the gag reflex won the day. And I think there was some issue about Nancy’s boyfriend living too close to Jeré. First romances are drama like no other, also for reasons understood only by junior high girls.

Jeré was the only child of much older parents who did their best to give her the world as she had come to expect but what teenage girl didn’t believe the world was hers? She moved away within that school year (I think), and I hope she found what I did with Maurya and Nancy.

The three pirates go on for 52 years—together with separate lives and never disconnected—no distance too great to come a runnin’. In 2014, the witch-pirate sails into the sunset for the last time. Nancy and I are adrift for a while but love eventually puts the wind in our sails. Today, Maurya would’ve been 70.

I no longer think about calling her but it is the rare day that I don’t think of her at all. The love is greater than the loss, the gratitude for over 50 years of friendship immense, enough for the years I live without her. Or so I tell myself every moment I reach for our friendship, the light in my stars, sunlight on pond waters, moonlight waxing or waning.

The witch-pirate did not suffer fools nor was she unkind, ever. She understood people have only their kind of love to give; she knew that often our shortcomings and our strengths are one and the same. And on this birthday and every day I think of her, the image of two lines, in her handwriting, comes into view:

Never cast aside your friends if by any possibility you can retain them. It is easy to lose a friend but a new one will not come for the calling nor make up for the old one. And when it is death that comes calling, the loss is no less.

But what of the two adventurous pirates still sailing the sea of unconditional friendship, 58 years and counting. They are now virtually connected every month in what is eerily similar to the 3 ½-4-hour phone calls they knew as teenagers. Nancy and I might be more different than alike, and we have set sail for opposing seas from time-to-time but our friendship always closed the distance.

We do not see eye-to-eye on politics or religion, if we were to list our points for argument but that’s not how we roll. We talk about what we know to be true and that puts every subject on the table without labels. We were fortunate to find love during years when we needed it most and it has withstood the events and years of our lives. Might as well cut off an arm rather than lose this testament of friendship.

Nancy is much better at setting the table at our monthly virtual meetings than I am, and it is so hard to leave her each time. There may be a day we just stay permanently connected—virtually—we already take food, drink, and bathroom breaks so maybe naps are next.

On December 19 Nancy is 70. Happy birthday, me hearties!

Zen Meets a Boojum with Snark

Alan Watts tells a story about translating Zen texts into English and the selecting of those books. He consulted a Zen master who found the translation idea pretty preposterous, particularly the selection of certain books. After all, any and every book is Zen, be it Alice in Wonderland, the Bible, or a dictionary for “the sound of rain needs no translation” is what the Zen master had to say on the matter.

There is no separating Zen from being alive.

The first time I came across the Alan Watts story was some years ago, when I was on my own quest for anything Zen, wanting to capture and analyze Zen so I could keep it as a constant companion, completely oblivious to the fact that everywhere I went, there I was, in the eternal presence of Zen.

For everyone there is a way but there is no one way for everyone. I get that now.

But then, I explored quotations and Zen memes to suit any occasion, read books about Zen, and listened in rapt attention to Pema Chodron offer Zen just as it is as. And from her lips to my ears, the sound of rain needed no translation but only when she whispered it.

So, still translating with no Zen of my own or so I thought.

It may have been in the fall or spring. In Florida it is the color of the leaves that distinguishes those two seasons, so similar in temperature. It was raining with a constancy and clarity I have come to know of early morning rain, steel rod straight without wind.

It was just an hour or so into the light of day, and I was in the middle of monkey mind meditation. I have long forgot the pressing issue of that day—so important it was—or it may have been the frustration of yet another monkey mind day of meditation. Agitation has such an array of possibilities.

And then I was one with the rain. Just like that.

I don’t know when it started. All I know is that once I realized what was happening, it stopped, and I was back watching the rain with an awareness, an evenness of mind, that would stay with me for at least a few hours. I was completely present to each task but soon my mind started wandering and trying to explain that which does not translate.

I have had this happen to me three times in the years I have been meditating and it is much the same each time. I am aware of returning but not where I have been—that is a complete blank. And for the next few hours in the day, there is a heightened awareness, which I do my best to make stay, but I think too much about what was and not what is.

The moment is all I have and I don’t let it be enough.

Twice this meditative state has involved nature and once it involved what I can only describe as a feeling of knowing I was going somewhere. I was particularly tired that morning and quite low on energy yet I remember thinking “Oh, this will be good.”

And it was.

It was the longest time I have been “gone”—two to three hours—the heightened sense of awareness stayed with me for some days afterward and has never completely left. I turn to it when I find myself moving away from the moment I have. There is nothing back there and everything right here.

I questioned whether I had simply fallen asleep and maybe I did. It was some time before I told a friend, and she said Eckhardt Tolle had described a very similar experience and wondered the same thing about falling asleep. We always know when a moment changes us. And that is enough. The sound of the rain needs no translation.

There is no way to analyze or translate what is beyond our knowledge of the physical dimension. And considering human limitations, not the least of which is our penchant for labels, I have no doubt we deny what we know to be true. We have words but they are not always what they once were.

Consider the Snark in Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark.” The poem might be about the unanswerable theological or philosophical questions or simply nonsense, without meaning at all. (However, the idea makes a very interesting episode of Inspector Lewis [Series 5, Episode 1]).

In the poem, there are nine tradesmen and one beaver who go in search of the Snark—and if this reminds you of a snipe hunt—when they find the Snark, it “gently and softly vanish[es] away [to] never be met with again.” And to this end, the episode of Inspector Lewis offers an interesting twist.

Detective Constable Hathaway tells an anecdote from the late 1870s about a young girl who writes to Carroll, wanting to know why he didn’t explain the Snark to which Carroll responds, “Are you able to explain things you can’t yourself understand?” It works well with the script but I can find no tell of such tale.

Reverend Dodgson, an early Carroll biographer, writes in 1876 of a young girl who loves the poem so much that she recites it at will, whether or not she has an appreciative audience. Her favorite venue, it seems, was the carriage ride. She knew a captive audience when she had one.

Lewis Carroll, writing to an American friend about the Snark says “I’m very much afraid I didn’t mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them” (The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, 1899).

The last line of the poem is “for the Snark was a boojum, you see,” an animal of the imagination and in 1922, Godfrey Sykes would name the Boojum tree found in the Baja Peninsula for it is like no other. Even in physics, there is a geometric pattern on the surface of helium known as a boojum. At the moment, there is a brewing company in the Carolinas with the name of Boojum Brewing.

It seems to me that once again, everywhere we go, there we are, in the eternal present defying definition. All we have is awareness, preferably heightened.

And somewhat tangentially related is a “what would you choose” scenario of two choices: a.) $1 million in cash, free of any taxation burden; b.) returning to my 40s, knowing everything I know now, as I approach 70.

Even if this were a multiple guess question my answer would be immediate and the same. (In full disclosure, forced into either or, I chose returning to my 40s but life is neither this nor that. It is on its very good days, a Boojum).

Money has never been an attraction, much to the chagrin of those who love me. I am not good with money because I just don’t care about having more than enough to meet my needs, and only this has been true in the last act of my life. For most of it, I followed the magical thinking form of finance, of which the worry was harder than maintaining a monthly spreadsheet.

And I have to admit that I enjoyed my 40s but mostly, I became comfortable with each decade as it revealed itself, a series of leit motifs in the overarching experience of life, not that revelation is always pleasant. Each decade has required adjustment but I have no wish to return to any time, even the past nanosecond. Been there, experienced that.

Only the eternal present offers what is new under the sun.

Sex and the Throw Pillows: A Good Soul Story

Part I: Sometimes Elegant, Other Times Not

In the moment before any story there is an image and then the translation of that thought into words, directing the actions of our lives. Of course, this is not always a good thing nor even a bad thing but it is how we roll.

In her iconic essay, “Why I Write” (NYT December 1976), Joan Didion says “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.”  The essay title, Didion acknowledges right away, is borrowed from James Orwell, and that’s how it is with all words—borrowed—from a common culture to communicate, sometimes elegantly and other times, not so much.

I cannot say I had Joan Didion in mind when I received Celeste’s text about throw pillows. Rather, sex was on my mind as I was trying to write a scene about a health and sexuality podcast in a small town buried by time (think Girl Boner Radio meets Brigadoon).

“You really need some color on your loveseat and throw pillows look great. Which ones do you like?” 😊

“I’m not big on throw pillows. I don’t like them.” I believe this will suffice but like sex in a small town, the story becomes much more than any actual act.

I then receive three images of throw pillows in different shapes: a green and white check square, a green and orange circle, an oblong red and green Scottish plaid. I don’t like throw pillows; have never owned any. I don’t think I ever had a thought about a throw pillow until I met Celeste, truly a good soul.

My use of the term, “good soul,” is not complimentary but refers to people who are “just trying to help,” meaning they help their way and only their way, as if they were born with a vision better than the rest of us mere mortals. Dorothy Parker, elegant as ever, described good souls this way:

“There is simply no keeping them down–back they come, with their little gifts, and their little words of advice, and their little endeavors to be of service, always anxious for more.”

All of this is to say that I would soon find myself in H-E double toothpicks yet again.

Part II: The Curmudgeon and the Good Soul

Celeste is determined to make me like other people, believing that deep in my soul it is what I desperately seek. In other words, mine is the façade of a curmudgeon desiring to fit finely into another fold. Thankfully, every time I’ve attempted to be like everyone else, I found myself instead.

She and I would never have met if it were not for my recent relocation to an efficiency apartment of 17 ½’ x 12 ½’ with half galley kitchen (including a granite countertop just big enough for a small microwave) and bathroom. These measurements are important, dear reader, and not extraneous text.

Celeste is the daughter-in-law of a former neighbor, my dear Sibyl. As is befitting her name, Sibyl is wise and has seen almost all of the 20th century during her 93 years. Sibyl loves Celeste deeply but she also knows her as the kind of person who loves a cause and one who “will take over if you let her.”

And so it was that Celeste was looking for household items—”just about anything, really”—for some migrant families who moved into our area of the Florida Panhandle. After asking me, Sibyl sent her along. In truth, I was delighted!

It was less than 36 hours before I would move, and I still had more “stuff” than I knew what to do with and although I would not admit it, I was increasingly hampered by both spinal cord and autoimmune disease. I don’t know why I thought I could be anything more than the person who wrote the check for the move.

So, it wasn’t as if I could just box up/bag up items and take them to Goodwill or any other donation center. Literally, I did not have the physical wherewithal. Also, I don’t believe that Goodwill or any agency taking donations are dumping grounds for anything that isn’t dust.

In hindsight, I cannot imagine a poorer plan for moving household but hindsight is like that, a pair of eyes I rarely seek, perhaps at my own peril. What might have been is not the best view of the past so meh, I say.

Enter my good soul, Celeste, surveying my mismatched wares in size and color: plates and glassware, flatware, and utensils; towels, a yellow fitted sheet, a green sheet, a brown mustard colored pillowcase; knickknacks of absolutely no worth (or meaning to me) stored in bins for eleven years. Yet, Celeste seemed to find good in all but very little and that we shoved into black plastic bags for flinging into the dumpster. It was a hard day’s work.

Without Celeste at this juncture in the move, both my wallet and my body would be even worse for wear. I was and remain grateful, although that may not always be evident.

When there was less than 12 hours left, I had overworked my body into such an inflammatory state that my tissues were leaking freely and every joint was supersized while my moisture glands were as dry as the Sahara. Chronic illness is nothing if not contradictory.

I had been eating nitrate and nitrite free turkey hotdogs stuffed into quinoa tortillas with vegan cheese and a bit of spinach for the last 10 days. I will die a comfort food eater always with one eye to the healthy. Oh, and apples, always lots of apples and blueberries.

And that is how Celeste found me that final day, sitting in the middle of my living room floor facing a wall of filled boxes, shoving food fast. We had discussed my new efficiency apartment and she had mentioned a degree in design. Yes, I encouraged her and once again, I was ever grateful.

Patiently, she explained the floor plan of my new efficiency apartment was not what it seemed so she drew, to scale, a floor plan five feet shorter in length, which meant my loveseat would not fit.

With most of my food swallowed, I reply, “I guess I didn’t mention that I was actually in an apartment similar to the one I’ll be renting. We measured it and my 12-foot tape measure ran out with about five feet to go.” But such is not the mind of a good soul who knows all.

She is unmoved and only has eyes for her floor plan. “You really can’t tell about these floor plans,” she says and shakes her head. “See this closet? More than likely they are including it in the 17 feet.”

“But I was there. In the room. With my tape measure. With five feet to the closet door.”

More head shaking on her part and then she looks directly into my eyes and says what I have been thinking but have been unable to consider, “You won’t have room for the loveseat.”

I am not in love with the loveseat and originally considered selling it but I am now down to less than 10 hours before the movers arrive and bereft of bandwidth for Facebook Marketplace, as lucrative as it proved to be. Even Celeste’s church will not help.

For reasons I will never understand, I waste another two hours trying to convince Celeste she is wrong but methodically and calmly, she continues to explain that closets are hidden in floor plans. And the longer we go on, she becomes convinced the bathroom may also be included. “I will be shocked,” she says, “if that room is longer than 12 feet.”

Moving day proves me (and my floor plan) right and her wrong.  I’m so angry about the added stress, the lost sleep and the unflappability that is Celeste so I wait a day before I text her: “It’s 17 1/2′.”

We go text silent for a week.

(Paulie Jenkins Photo)

Part III Only Her Kind of Love to Give

And now, dear reader, we return to the throw pillow texts or from whence this post began.

“To be clear, I don’t want throw pillows.” I think about adding 🙏 but I think better of it.

“OK. Sibyl and I would like to gift you these pillows. It’s really uncomfortable sitting on your loveseat and throw pillows would help.” 😊

I am reminded of a saying about people having only their kind of love to give. In Celeste’s case, it includes using my friendship with Sibyl. There really is no keeping a good soul down.

“Well, buy them, then! I certainly can’t have that!!? 🙄 By now, I have stopped writing the sex-in-a-small town podcast scene. Sexuality cannot hold a candle to a throw pillow in the hands of a good soul. I wish it were not so. But before Celeste can respond, I text:

“When you are not here, I’ll throw them in the closet. I don’t like throw pillows and I won’t make myself look at them.”  In a room of 17′, EVERYTHING is in view, including a fleck from a taco shell. And yes, I’m being a bit childish. 😬

“But you have so little space!”

“Exactly.”

We go text silent for the day but I wake up to:

“Good morning! I’m wondering how you feel about the throw pillows today.” 😊

“Same as yesterday! But you already bought them so????” 😣 Ah, perhaps she did not purchase the pillows. I am reminded of Leonard Cohen’s “there is a crack in everything; it’s how the light gets in.”

“Who doesn’t like throw pillows?” 🤔

“I don’t. I told you I don’t. I’m not like other people.”

“But this means Sibyl and I will have to bring our own throw pillows when we come to visit.” 😕

As much as I love Sibyl I’m not living with throw pillows, which I suspect the prophetess has known all along. I offer her good soul daughter-in-law an out:

“It seems to me that most of our visits will take place in Sibyl’s apartment.” 😊

“That’s a good point.” 😊

There is some silence before Celeste texts:

“Sibyl would be really upset, I mean really upset, if she knew about this exchange.” 😳

“I have no intention of telling her.” I know I won’t have to because Celeste will, and Sibyl knows (and loves) both of us, who we are and as we are.

There have been no visits to either apartment but Sibyl and I converse on the phone regularly, as we have done for all the years of our friendship—we’re phone friends—she in her rocker with her throw pillow and I on my loveseat in restorative recline.

 

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.