This Wild and Precious Life

My Wednesday Writing Group is now meeting via email since we are sheltering in place. Our fearless leader’s recent prompt forced me into some deep soul searching. I didn’t know where this piece was going when I picked up my pen, but it turned into something meaningful for me, so meaningful that I’m opening myself up to you now.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Naturalized daffodils in the woods

I remember when our children were young and complained about not having enough time to do the things that really mattered. My go-to response was to remind them that however they spent their time was a demonstration of what truly mattered the most to them (which was often watching TV). Sometimes the response was tears, sometimes an eye roll or two, but it never seemed to change behavior. Maybe that’s because I was better at preaching than practicing. I was chiding myself every bit as much as I was chiding them.

I live in constant awe and envy of many women whose orbit I circle: women who travel to far off places to do good, putting themselves in who-knows-how-much of harm’s way, risking their health and safety. They give their time, their creativity, and their financial resources to help others. They think of others before themselves.

Like theirs, my heart aches for the plight of so many in this world, but that is often as much as I allow. I’m filled with compassion more than passion. I am not moved to activism. A lifetime ago it was different, but I burned my candle down to a nub. I got burned and burned out, and the flame has never reignited.

Still, I find myself looking around me and wondering how I can help, how I can make a difference. I looked close to home—it’s not an easy place to find an answer. I’m surrounded by an enclave of family—theirs, not mine. Much of what they do, all four generations of them, they do together: farming, canning, eating, errands, playing. They are self-contained; they take care of each other. They do not seem to need others, even in times of need.

“Where am I needed? What can I do?”

That was the question I asked myself when one of the older generation among these neighbors received a devastating cancer diagnosis. They certainly didn’t need me to bring food or offer trips to the doctor. I had just recently retired from my far more than  full-time job when it came to me—the one thing I now had that family members did not.

Time. I could visit. While their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are off at work and school, I could give my time.

I had my answer.

At this stage in my own life, it seems the things I have to offer are the small things. A smile, a word of encouragement, a thank you or a compliment. They are indeed small things, but as I look around, they are things the world seems much in need of right now. These things I can do, and I have learned to be on the alert. Not always, not enough, but so much more than when I was so overworked and overwhelmed that I seemed only to live inside myself.

These days I actively watch for opportunities to smile, to make a small gesture. “Is there something I can get for you from that top shelf?” to the older gentleman in his electric shopping cart. “May I help with that?” to the woman struggling to get her arm into the coat sleeve.

I step out of my comfort zone to say something pleasant to a person who seems vulnerable. It’s an indirect way of saying, “You’re not alone. Here is a safe place.” Sometimes I just watch. How is this clerk from Pakistan being treated by her customers? How are those Latino customers being treated by that cashier? I’m ready to step in, though I have no idea how.

I’ve also learned that things I think and say and write can occasionally make a difference. It’s the main reason I continue to write—in hopes that I will sometimes find some combination of words that will touch someone.

In these ever more uncertain times, I believe it is more important than it ever has been—in my lifetime, at least—to look for the small ways I can help improve someone else’s day. Maybe it’s an extra large tip when my server is having a tough time. Maybe it’s a conversation with the overworked cashier at the big box store. Maybe it’s popping a check in the mail to make up for the appointments I’ll miss with my hairdresser for the current stage of the coronavirus shutdown—with a little something extra added in. Maybe it’s looking for a sliver of silver lining someone’s clouds.

What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? I plan to plant a little ray of sunshine wherever I can. Carrie Newcomer sings, “Between here now and forever is so precious little time.” With my precious little time I will seek out tiny acts of kindness to perform, following Mother Teresa’s counsel to do small things with great love.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, 1992

 

 

Resolutions, Habits, and Intention

I can’t remember the last time I made a New Year’s resolution. Certainly not after young adulthood.

Before that, making a long list of things I would change about myself as each new year rolled in was an act I never questioned. But then it came to me. Resolutions rarely accomplish anything—unless it’s to make you feel bad about yourself. If you were like me, you tended to think of resolutions in terms of negatives, things you’d been doing wrong or at least were not doing right.

I made resolutions the wrong way, too: broad generalizations which couldn’t be quantified and which, even if they could, were usually impossible to live up to. New Year’s resolutions were downright disheartening. They emanated from guilt and were generally doomed to create even more.

So, no New Year’s resolutions for me.

But as we rang in 2020, I realized that 2019 had taught me something immensely important. Not about resolutions, but habits. Resolutions are so often built around breaking bad ones. Hard to do. What about building good habits instead? Practically by accident, I developed several new habits—all good—in 2019. Along the way, I discovered good habits are as easy to form as bad ones.

I feel like a genius!

A couple of my habits have taken the form of lists. I began 2019 by listing EACH BOOK I COMPLETED, mostly out of curiosity. How much was I actually reading?. Before I knew it, recording my reading became second nature. Keeping a log of one’s reading material may be kind of neutral as habits go, but I count this list-keeping as a positive, if only because I stuck to it. But there is more to it. My list gives me information to feed on. It helps me remember what I’ve read and reminds me what I want to follow up on. It helps me clarify what I like and why I like it so I can make more informed reading choices in the future. It’s a reference point for issues to develop in my writing, philosophy, and more.

About midway through the year, I began a Moment of Joy (MOJ) journal. I’ll write more about that in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that what began as a whim became a habit, almost overnight—to someone who with a lifelong ineptitude when it comes to keeping any sort of diary or journal. My MOJ journal became something bigger. Unintentionally, it became a practice in intention.

I formed another intentional habit quite unintentionally when I read Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North. She wrote about a spiritual retreat where participants were instructed to chew each bite of food, even their breakfast porridge, thirty times. Was that even possible? I had to give it a try.

It felt a little silly at first, counting every time my teeth met. But as I learned it was possible to chew one type of food thirty times, I wanted to test another. And again, without realizing it, I had developed a new habit. I began to catch myself, just below my consciousness, counting. My mind was at work building an intention, slowly ticking off the chews: twenty-seven . . . twenty-eight . . . twenty-nine . . . thirty. And sometimes up to forty or more. I was no longer chewing for the counting. Counting became a means—a pleasant way to be more intentional about the process of eating.

Not only can thirty chews per bite be done (usually); it has tremendous emotional and physical benefits. I stopped choking on food, something that happens far too often, usually because I’m in a hurry or talking or trying to multitask as I eat. Other digestive problems began to lessen or disappear altogether. I found myself more tranquil, more aware of my surroundings. It turns out that chewing each bite thirty or so times is intensely calming and refreshing. What I took on as a one-time challenge became another intention, one with far-reaching results.

Well, the new year is here and I’ve begun yet another project. This gal never before succeeded in developing a journaling habit just gave herself a five-year, line-a-day journal. It’s really more like four or five lines a day. Three hundred and sixty-seven pages, each with space for five years’ worth of notes for every date on the calendar. I’m hopeful that the constraints of this journal will help me stay on track, especially since I’m incorporating my MOJs into each day’s notekeeping. In 2025 I can, at a mere glance, look back on five years’ worth of entries for any given date for the last half decade. I think the comparison will be fascinating.

Now that I think about it, it’s a huge statement of optimism for a septuagenarian to purchase a blank book in anticipation of adding to it for 1800 days. That’s a pretty hopeful intention itself.

I’ve even started a weather diary–another five-year project.

What I learned during the past year has changed me. I’m learning to think more intentionally about lots of things—to BE more intentional. That will surely lead to more good habits, easy to keep.

Who needs resolutions?

Fifty-Two Books in Fifty-Two Weeks

That’s right. I wanted to see if I could read as fast as my mom seems to, so as we rang in 2019, I began keeping a list. And I just counted them up. Fifty-two. I don’t mind telling you, I was a little impressed with myself (especially considering I was consumed with writing my own book throughout the entire year). Admittedly, some were children’s books—quick, easy reads. But I made up for that with some massive, heavy-duty tomes.

For the record, I don’t waste my time with bad writing. But my reading habits are a little out of the ordinary, so who knows if anyone else shares my eclectic reading preferences. I rarely read a best-seller, nor do I read hot-off-the-presses books. Those two facts alone mean I’m not your typical reader.

At bedtime, I read for fun—light stuff so I can sleep. I often read books recommended by writer friends whose tastes I trust. And I’ve read quite a few books as research for my writing—or others that the research led me to as I became obsessed with a particular area. This year I’ve also read several deeper books, volumes by wise women and men who write words that inspire and push me.

Here are my favorites of the year—the best of the best.

FICTION

Don’t you just love this cover?

My favorite fiction book of the year, for all kinds of reasons, was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.: iI’s about Kentucky, a state I think of as my second home; it’s about the magic of books; it’s a history and civics lesson about pack horse librarians, the Great Depression, and the blue-skinned people of Kentucky. Kim Michele Richardson, whose own story is compelling, dug deep in penning this book. She moves from fiction to fact and back again with such deftness you never notice the switch. And her love for her subject shines through every word. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Hint: check out the pictures and information at the end of the book before you dig in to the story. I think it makes a difference to know a little about the actual history of the pack horse librarians. Rather than ruining the story for the reader, I believe this foreknowledge can only enhance your reading. Buy it or check it out from your local library—and if they don’t have it, ask them to order it. In spite of some hard truths, the story and Richardson’s telling of it are simply beautiful.

Two other favorite fiction reads of the year were Sonja Yoerg’s True Places and Bren McClain’s One Good Mama Bone (That one was a recommendation from Richardson—an excellent recommendation.) What I liked about both of these books is that the characters are believable and the reader learns from them. Yoerg’s career as a biological psychologist definitely influences her insight into the human condition. Like Richardson, she researched the Blue Ridge flora and fauna and incorporated facts with such skill you don’t notice it. While McClain’s protagonist is human, you will become deeply attached to the cow, Mama Red. In the end, McClain has written a love story to Mama Red. It’s well worth the read.

I couldn’t make myself read Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s breakout debut novel. But I was drawn to Thirteen Moons when I read that it was a fictional account of William Holland Thomas’s life. Thomas plays a minor role in my family’s genealogy. For reasons unknown, my great-grandfather was named for him And I recently discovered that Thomas married a distant relative—my second cousin three times removed. Those two facts were all it took to hook me. This book is decidedly not everyone’s cup of tea, but I was captivated. The story is episodic, almost diary-like. And there’s a reason for that. Frazier wrote that his protagonist, Will Cooper, is not Thomas, but that they share the same DNA. I’ll say. Frazier clearly read his way through Thomas’s prolific papers. There is definitely fiction here, but underlying it is far more biography and history. If you contemplate reading this book, be sure you read about the real Will first—his fascinating story as an orphan, lawyer, chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and colonel in the Civil War is larger than life, both heroic and tragic. Knowing it will deepen your appreciation for Frazier’s story.

FOOD

I read three books on the subject of food, though they come from distinctly different points of view. I would never had given Tommy Tomlinson’s The Elephant in the Room a thought except that I saw and heard the author on two occasions. I could tell his writing would be superb and bewitching, regardless of the subject per the subtitle: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America. With that bit of knowledge, you may have deduced the double meaning in the title. This book is brutally honest, funny, painful, and masterfully written. It’s worth the reader’s time regardless of your relationship to food, but especially worthwhile for anyone struggling with any kind of addiction or anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of that struggle. You might recognize Tomlinson’s name from ESPN, The Charlotte Observer, or WFAE Radio. No wonder he’s such a good writer.

Shawna Coronado’s Stacked With Flavor is both a cookbook and a guide to wellness, full of gleanings from her own experience and personal growth living with severe food allergies and osteoporosis. The recipes, though, are not just anti-inflammatory, dairy-free, grain-free and low-sugar, though they are all of these things. Her method—using herbs and spices to stack flavors—makes every dish endlessly versatile and delicious. That’s what caught my attention, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. Coronado did her own photography and it’s delicious, too.

Georgann Eubanks may be best known for her North Carolina Literary Trails series, but she’s branched out. The Month of Their Ripening takes the reader through a calendar year of foods that, while not necessarily unique to North Carolina, are among the state’s heritage foods. She features foods whose seasons are short and which are best eaten at the height of their season. Your mouth will water at Eubanks’s delicious writing as she travels through the state’s nooks and crannies in search of Tar Heel foodways via interviews with farmers, cooks, historians, and—best of all—taste tests.

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

I came to That Book Woman after reading Richardson’s tale. Both it and Ernestine’s Milky Way tell stories of rural life with stunning illustrations. I had to have them both to share with the grandkids. Both books are magical. With Ernestine, you’ll even learn how to make butter.

Rabbit Hill is an oldie, written in 1944. It’s worth reading just to see how children’s books have evolved. This one, full of sophisticated grown-up words, was clearly meant as a book to be read to children by adults who would use the story to teach vocabulary. It’s a lovely story that any animal lover has to appreciate.

Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum was not written by the famous author, but uses a newly discovered manuscript and sketches by Seuss to create a playful art book for children and features a few classic Seuss characters to help tell the story. If you love Dr. Seuss, horses, or art, you’ll fall for this unique book. A terrific way to help children learn about great art.

POETRY

I’m not even going to try. Native Kentuckian Frank X. Walker’s small volume, Affrilachia, must be read and savored, one morsel at a time. Even if you’re not big into poetry, you can appreciate this one. Walker says he coined the word Affrilachia to make visible the black experience in the Appalachian South. And he succeeded

MEMOIR

If you value excellent writing, I believe you’ll love anything you read by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg. I happened upon him quite by accident and have now read three of his books. I found Ava’s Man particularly compelling. He writes as only a Southern writer can and your jaw will drop at the sheer poetry of it. His books will make you laugh as hard as they will make you cry. And you’ll learn a few heart-breaking truths along the way.

Also see Leigh Ann Henion and Kate Bowler in the following category.

PERSONAL AND SPIRITUAL GROWTH/AGING

Not necessarily religious, these books are intellectually spiritual, some of them particularly relevant for those of us who now qualify as elders. Each one is intimate, honest, thought-provoking, vulnerable, and filled with deeply perceptive perspectives.

I’m way over my self-imposed word limit, so I’m just going to list them here with links. Sorry to give them short shrift, but perhaps it is enough to say I found each one enlightening. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say they were all seriously life-changing for me.

Leigh Ann Henion, Phenomenal (beguiling imagery; hauntingly beautiful)

Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything

Mary Pipher, Women Rowing North

Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved

Happy Reading in 2020! (And I’d love to hear about some of your favorite books.)

Note: For simplicity and universality, I’ve linked to online sources. But may I gently encourage you to seek out your local independent bookseller (if you should be so lucky as to have one) or your public library if you’re interested in reading any of these books.

P.S.: I’m laughing at myself right now. Just counted up and realize I’ve included a whopping 30% (almost) of my year’s reading list as the best. I’d never succeed as judge of a writing contest. Told you I read nothing but the best!

 

Thanks Giving

“What is the best moment of your day?” she asked.

That turned out to be a question I couldn’t answer directly. Let me put it this way.

The best moment of my day is . . .

when a sun’s ray beams onto my face, wakes me, and bird songs welcome the day;

when I eat a breakfast of eggs from the happy chickens who live just down the road;

when the cacophonous chatter of crows having their morning “coffee klatch” interrupts the still of my morning;

when I sip a cup of honeyed herbal tea as my mind loosely organizes my day;

when I check on the latest thing to pop up in the vegetable garden on a sunny summer morning—or later in the season, when I harvest what I’ll eat that day and preserve more for chilly winter nights;

when the comfort of a snuggle under the covers overtakes me upon waking in the morning and again as I fall asleep each night;

when a few hours of dedicated writing time come my way;

The best part of my day is . . .

when the all-day antics of squirrels and chipmunks capture my attention as they battle each other’s wits over food intended for birds;

when I take a twilight summer stroll listening to the quiet, watching the synchronicity of fireflies light up our woods, and catching whiffs of honeysuckle;

when I gaze at the star-studded sky on a clear, crisp wintry night and maybe catch a meteor streaking through the atmosphere;

when I spy mountaintops peeking through a sea of clouds;

when the nighttime call of an owl seeps into my consciousness;

when the early springtime sounds of wood frogs and peepers shatter the otherwise quiet of my bedroom—all night long;

when I’m graced with the giggles and confidences of grandchildren;

when the season’s first wild daisy shows itself in our meadow.

The best—and sweetest—moment of my day is a spontaneous embrace anywhere, anytime as my sweetheart and I sway ever so slightly—the way young lovers move to a slow dance at the prom—for no particular reason and for minutes on end.

With all these best moments, I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn: “How can I keep from singing?”

And I give thanks.

 

 

Three Little Words

(I wrote the following a little more than two years ago, knowing it wasn’t yet time to post it. Now the time has come. It may be a little disjointed since it was more or less stream of consciousness. I thought it better to leave it as it was, only adding an update.)

Three little words. Thirteen letters. Words that will dramatically change your life.

You hope not to hear them. But you have that feeling in your gut. You wait for them.

He has your fate in his hands. Why is he keeping you waiting? Doesn’t he know you’re anxious?

Finally, you hear the light tap on the door before it opens and he walks in.

And there they are. Those three little words. Laid bare.

“You have cancer.”

You’re different now.

Except that you aren’t. The truth was already there. The cancer was already there. You are the same today as you were yesterday. Your fate wasn’t in the doctor’s hands. What he said didn’t change a single fact. It just changed what you know.

Today you know a thing you didn’t know yesterday, or even a moment ago. You suspected it. Maybe you feared it. But you didn’t know it. Yet, it was there.

You have cancer.

You had it yesterday.

You had it last week.

Nothing is different today except that you know it. And you’ll know it tomorrow. And the day after that. And the next day. Forever.

If you hadn’t made that appointment, you wouldn’t know it today, either. But you’d still have it. Nothing can change that truth.

* * * * *

For the few weeks we were waiting for the biopsy and then the results, we made a conscious decision: we weren’t going to worry about it. It either was or wasn’t. Nothing we could do, say, think, or get worked up about would change a thing. We could hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but nothing would change what was. We went on about our daily lives.

And now we know. The question now is what to do about it. Here’s what.

Get informed. Listen to the doc. Take notes; review them. Ask questions. Read the literature. Research.
Get a second opinion or consultation, if we want. (We didn’t. It was pretty straightforward.)
Make a treatment decision.
Tell the family.
Make plans.
Do what it takes: schedule surgery, get radiation, take meds—whatever the regimen is.

But most of all, meanwhile and forever, live life.

You can’t change what is, but you can decide to continue doing what matters. You can make the best of what you have. Cancer may change you. It may not. It may shorten your life or it may not. So may or may not any number of other things. With or without a cancer diagnosis, your decision should be the same: live whatever life you have the best you can. On your own terms.

I’ve heard it said everyone will get cancer if they live long enough. Some people get it sooner, but eventually, if something else doesn’t do you in first, it will be cancer. It is part of life itself. At a certain point, your body starts to turn on you. Metabolism slows. Bones get brittle. Joints creak. Age spots and wrinkles appear. Hair thins. Minds become less elastic, less quick. And maybe your cells get all out of whack. It is all part of the end. The end starts at the beginning.

We won’t forget those three words, those thirteen letters. Certainly not that one, loaded, six letter word. We’ll do what it takes. But we won’t stop living. Tonight we’ll sleep snuggled together (maybe a little closer). Tomorrow we’ll get up, dress, make and eat breakfast, check e-mail, harvest vegetables, mow the grass. We’ll plan our upcoming trip. We’ll laugh.

Cancer is now a part of us. But cancer will not define us. Cancer will not control us.

P.S. The cancer diagnosis was not for my body. It was for his. But it somehow feels the same. At least for me. He agrees, but there’s surely a difference when it’s actually your body. Nonetheless, from the first moment we heard the three word pronouncement, both of us have thought in terms of “we.” The surgery, the treatment, the decisions, the life we lead—they’re ours together. And we aim to make the best of it.

Update: The diagnosis was prostate cancer. For eighteen months after the surgery, there was no evidence any cancer cells remained. Then, just like that, it was back. (If you’re so inclined, you can read Ron’s version of this story and journey here and here.)

The very good news is there is no indication that it has spread beyond the prostate bed, and a combination of hormone and radiation therapy seems like a winning strategy. For now, we’re waiting for the radiation oncologist and his team to complete mapping a therapy plan so radiation treatments can begin.

Off and on, I’ll likely use this blog space to share more thoughts and experiences about how we’re navigating this new territory in our lives. Stay tuned.

Holy Words

Lately, I’ve found myself deeply touched by the words of others. Yes, mere words have lifted me up and given me new hope. There is something of the holy* in their wisdom. (*Etymology lesson of the day: the English word ‘holy’ comes from the Old English word hālig, meaning “whole” as in sound, healthy, complete.Wise words, coming from lessons well-learned, have the potential to make us whole. 

My young friend Emma recently had the opportunity to immerse herself in the life and culture of the Philippines. She came away with this insight: “I am beyond grateful for my life and being able to have the opportunity to come and visit this amazing country, where they are grateful every night for simple things such as a glass of water.”

A cousin who recently suffered a stroke and has a long recovery road ahead of him is taking on the challenge with great determination. He reminds us that “the simplest tasks are the hardest;” he takes pride in every inch of progress including his first day moving to and from his wheelchair with no falls, noting, “You have to learn to appreciate the simple things in life . . . and be glad to have lived through yet another day!!!” He has the saving grace of a sense of humor. After the hard work of putting on and tying his shoes, he realized he’d gotten them on the wrong feet. “You have to learn to laugh a lot,” he said. 

A special friend living with a serious illness said something along these lines: “There have been unexpected blessings on this journey,” as she expounded on the kindnesses of others and a hyperawareness of beauty and truth.

Each of these perceptive people has learned big lessons. Each is a little different, and each one is important. May we all be blessed with the empathy to see and appreciate the daily struggles of others. May we all develop the ability to look around us and honor the unearned bounty that surrounds us. May we learn to laugh at ourselves and to honor our baby steps; they have the potential to turn into giant leaps. And may we recognize and be strengthened by the blessings bestowed by good people, be they professionals, family, neighbors, or strangers.

Whether we want to believe it or not, there is a whole heck of a lot we can’t control in life. But we can learn from it. These inspiring people in my life have learned important life lessons, and they inherently understand the value of passing them on. May we be good students of them and their kind. Be whole.