Living Too Close to the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stupid Does Have a Darker Side

Some of my days begin with refrains of songs and sometimes the refrain stays the day.

The wood is old

The wood is tired

If the weather holds

We’ll make it fine.

But if the weather holds

We’ll have missed the point

That’s where I need to go. (From “The Wood Song,” Indigo Girls)

The weather cannot hold if we are to become better than we were, different, do more with the life we have rather than wishing our lives away for the perfect day, which will neither come nor stay. We can no longer miss the point, which has been our history.

We have one more chance to make good. Some version of this idea comes through my morning meditation almost daily now but none quite take me where I need to go.

I guess I could meditate for the rest of my life to feel better.

The thing about stupidity is determining whether people are just so dumb they don’t know better or they do, and they are just that evil.

If it no longer bothers me to appear in public with a tampon up my nose, I’m beyond blushing about any of my behavior.

It’s this last thought that doesn’t leave my mind too many places to go, so I jump off in this time of viruses jumping species. This is the world we created, in our own image as it were, and it’s not such a great place, yet here we are.

Our resoundingly resilient planet has pronounced, “Time out!” offering us a moment to consider another way of being, a chance to demonstrate we are better than we appear. Most of us are not evil but a lot of us are easily misguided. There is no longer time to ignore the point.

Which is not expressed in positive platitudes and memes of generality, none of which are about being alive and learning to live, which is messy and full of mistakes, painful but valuable in its daily experience. I eschew the word positive as it has become a way to spin whatever the weather is as–all will be well when it won’t.

I prefer to face the weather as it arrives, leaving the spin to those who brand life with one label or another, a constant commentary about absolutely nothing, utterly feckless (by design). Stupid really does have a darker side.

For me, mindfulness separates the wheat from the chaff, as long as I do the work, which I don’t always. I’m as susceptible to branding as the next person. Some days I want the weather to just hold so I don’t have to do my part (just for a little while) but I’m not alive not to live, not to experience. That’s the point.

During these days of distance from people, I look into the woods outside my window, so many worlds within worlds, where sometimes, too, chaos reigns. Viruses are known to all species but it is also true that some are of our own making. Maybe the world is setting itself right, whether or not we stay in it.

Time is a construct of our creation, meaningless to all of existence except to us. It isn’t that we cannot have routines in which we work and play but we will not pigeonhole the planet. The weather will not always hold. Sounds like a conspiracy theory, I suppose, but regardless, it is mine (with a nod to The Indigo Girls).

We are witnessing the fall of all we believed. We thought it would always hold. Turns out, it was unsustainable, the stuff of branding. It doesn’t mean we will not do better. It means we must.

I could meditate for the rest of my life and probably feel better but one day, the world would come knocking and I would be found wanting. Been there, done that. I’m not missing the point again.

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.

One with the Wood

Morning mantra…I don’t remember the day it started, years ago certainly, but its why is another matter. I wanted a way to define being in the moment for if I could confine it, then I could experience it. Ha!

I lost the control and kept the mantra, which doesn’t hold back: mine is to meet each moment with compassion, lovingkindness, joy, and equanimity, which is not to say I do. I’m not setting goals just reminding myself to open the door of each day and begin there.

Just waking to some days is easier than others. To meet what happens after that and look to the heart and not only the face is never easy. Feelings may not be facts but they are powerful for at their core is pure energy.

Mindfulness–awareness like no other–helps me open that daily door, which is sometimes to a forest, rare and rich. Every day is a stroll, indoors or out, but a forest floor with sun shadows is stuff for my memory banks.

It is summertime in the Florida panhandle (although the calendar considers it spring), the humidity almost as high as the 90°+ temperatures, some of my best days for my body.

My walking stick is wood, a live branch now fallen, stripped of bark and varnished clear, its knots remembered. I have added black rubber tips to its top and bottom, one to ground and one to grip, for ease of grasp.

My left side is weaker, so much so my left hand cannot hold the stick with any certainty but my right hand, used to leading, finds the walking stick a useful prop. Sometimes, balance looks lopsided.

I waddle and wobble, a slow stagger sometimes, but an evenness of mind and body down a forest path on a late spring morning just after sunrise is–to me–all that and lots of birdsong.

This greenway is 50 acres of forest and meadow with 12 miles of dusty sand trail but to me it is boundless, yet forests have their limits these days and are now carefully tended not to exceed. What is done is done.

I walk until I tire, reaching a picnic table made of concrete, its bench table tops painted brown for natural reasons I suppose. Still, I am grateful for such tables, as well benches, for there are days I stop briefly at each one but today, it is the second picnic table where I will stay.

Not far along, I know, but in the forest, distance ceases to matter, like time. It’s forgotten. To neither, the forest bends. Rather, it gives its all.

Regular readers of this blog may recognize the above picture of a magnificent live oak split down the middle by lightning some six or seven years ago, not even nanoseconds in its life. See how its heart has sprouted so many new lives.

In the distance, in stark contrast, stands another oak, a sentinel stripped of its bark, possibly by lightning but by life, nonetheless. At the tip of one of its limbs, I notice movement, the shape of a turkey vulture when its head switches to profile, but mostly it is one with the wood.

In awe, I watch as all else disappears.

Not even the heart of the magnificent tree, with all its new lives distracts from being one with the wood. No sound nor single thought or emotion, only nothing consumes mind and body. I am neither on the ground or in the air, only nowhere.

In some moment I return to being a human alive with the energy that animates everything rather than being one with it. Such moments never repeat, not in the same way or same place, and in some moment I became comfortable with that, just meeting the moment I am in, grateful for a day as a human being.

Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything” (Gordon Hempton, Ecologist).

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.

By the Light of the Moon

We come to recognize that we lead more than one life, its iterations multifaceted. We are one being–an explosive body of energy–exploring what it is to be alive.

My current life began by the light of the moon, August of 2010, sitting on a single bed, one of three pieces of furniture I had not sold or given away. I shared it with Gumby, an elderly, diabetic beagle. We were surrounded by boxes of books, an ottoman that doubled as a linen chest, an antique rocker from my childhood.

I was not unhappy but I was scared. In fact, I was more content than I remembered being in my then 58 years. The bottom of the abyss can feel that way, a beginning. There is something about starting anew; maybe it’s that beginnings never end.

Yet on that day in August, death was close. I could not or would not see it. In my eyes, Gumby grew younger every day. I did a lot of lying to myself then but not about managing her diabetes.

I was meticulous in giving her insulin and managing her diet. It would not be enough, ultimately, but in that August, I needed her to walk me through the moonlight, and she did–for miles–every day.

Sometimes being surrounded by uncertainty is the way to see through fear. How else to look through the life lens, wide-open. Death is not always believable in its first glimpse. It’s only the last look that stays.

I think that’s because life does go on and in its absence, we have memory, its edges soft–fears faded–we will never live that moment again. We know how it turns out.

So this life I lead now began with a dying beagle whose blindness led both of us into the life I have now.  Gumby only stayed a month after we stopped walking by the light of the moon.

Without her, I cannot know when or how I would have left my other life. It doesn’t seem possible. Certainly, the path would have been different.

Morning after morning, I sat in the dark that comes before dawn–sometimes with moonlight, sometimes not–always staring at a computer screen, waiting for the daily inspirational quote from Oprah Winfrey’s newsletter.

Every quotation seemed to be just what I was feeling. Another sliver of light. I wasn’t looking for answers.  I had learned about answers; they are a dime a dozen. Ephemeral.

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

I wanted to stay curious, to find a way to courage, to face questions I had not yet discovered and when I did, ask them aloud. I was tired of being afraid.

I wanted to be Gumby, starting every morning with a walk, unable to see yet confident in the path. I wanted that kind of trust. Scent memory was her GPS.

It has been years since I glimpsed her face in another animal or had a quick flash of memory that seems so real. For a moment I am with her again, walking for miles, never knowing where we are going but always finding home.

It took me years to trust my GPS.

The more we discover, the more lives we live. Like the moon, they have their phases, waxing and waning. A life can only be dark so long, maybe no longer than an eclipse even when it feels an eternity.

Never fear the path for it is always home.