Friday, September 30, 2011


Jonathan was a soft, warm man living in a hard, cold shell that he created purposely to keep people out of his personal life. Over the years I wore away at that exterior like water drops falling on stone, until an opening appeared tiny enough to sneak through. He did and didn't appreciate my persistence.

In our high school freshman English classroom (1956) he called us Miss this and Mr. that, which let us know the only way we could conduct ourselves during those 50 minutes in his presence was with dignity. Well, as much dignity as a teenager can conjure up. He used words like complacency, vicarious, and auspicious. He insisted we all memorize John Dunnne's No Man is an Island. I know it to this day.

He was a man of mystery back then, wearing very dark glasses whenever outdoors, sporting a practically permanent frown, speaking softly always yet sternly when appropriate. Never talking down to us, but expecting us to rise up to meet him on a higher road. Now and then he would surprise us with his unique wit.

My parents divorced when I was small, and my father lived in other parts of the world. My stepfather was not a nice man. In retrospect I believe the reason Jonathan lived in the spotlight on the stage of my young life was that in the role he played opposite me, he never yelled at me, never swore at me, never hit me, never behaved inappropriately toward me. He was gentle, kind, intelligent, supportive, and inspiring. When I handed in an original short story as an assignment, it came back to me with his note in red ink -- "I am constrained to ask the painful question -- did you write this?" Crushed, I assured him I had and he asked me to write another for him, after which he said to me the magical words, "You are a writer." It wasn't until my thirties that I began to believe him, to prove him right, and we reconnected.

There is so much I'm grateful for relating to Jonathan, but more than anything else I think I am grateful that he and my husband were able to know and like each other. A few years back he invited us to spend a weekend with him at his home in Tahoe. He made it clear that we were free to wander off to sight see or visit the casinos. I made it clear we were there to spend every waking moment just being with him, which came so easily to all three of us. There were so many questions I had asked him throughout the years about himself and his life, receiving only cryptic replies. I had no idea he had stored my questions away, to answer them in his own time. At Tahoe he talked. It was almost as though he had been waiting until he knew I had someone at my side to help me support the weight of his words.

Among other things he told us that, as a young US Marine, his duty during the Korean war had been to document interrogations led by the CIA. He carried a heavy and hurtful burden on his shoulders for the rest of his life. With his death my consolation is knowing that the burden has been lifted. And while it is said that most tears shed graveside are for words unspoken and deeds undone, I know with absolute certainty that I said and did everything within my power to let Jonathan know throughout our relationship that he holds a special place in my heart. He felt unworthy, of course, embarrassed at times, but now and then one corner of his mouth would turn up ever so slightly, letting me know he was secretly pleased.

I thought I was prepared for his eventual death. Frank and I had planned in advance. He read the obituaries daily and we had rehearsed how he would inevitably break the news to me in the least devastating manner possible. Yesterday he simply said "Oh-oh," put down the newspaper, and stood with his arms open, saying, "Come here." That was when my crying began. It hasn't stopped yet but it is lessening.

Joanthan's last words to me (a phrase he repeated often) were, "Strive on." Rest in peace, Jonathan, and rest assured that I am striving on. I am striving on.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Life in the Slowing Down Lane

When Frank and I married in 1976, I had two teenage sons from a previous marriage. Several months after our wedding we decided to have a baby together, and that explains our Jennifer, 14 years younger than her brother Jeff, 16 years younger than her brother Craig. She is Frank's only child, although he always claims a proud stake in the boys as well, since he saw us all through their teen years and supported me emotionally during the letting-go-of-them stage. Which was tough. On me. Not them. As is usually the case, they could not WAIT to be out and on their own.

Now all our children are adults, two of them with children of their own, and one of their daughters a mother herself. It has been an incredible journey for this mom/dad/grandma/grandpa/great grandmother/great grandfather. An adventure in learning lessons from the younger generations as they grew up and we grew old-er -- some of the lessons happy ones, others not so much; but all worth the impact they've had on our lives.

It literally took me years to adjust to the empty nest once Jennifer tested her wings and flew off into the rising sun that shed both light and shadows on the path the chose for herself. My eyes still tear up when I recall waking up the first morning that she was... gone. Frank joyously danced about the house naked, reveling in his new found freedom. I felt as though I was coming out of anesthesia only to find that an important part of me had been surgically removed. I had known in advance that it was coming, but still it hurt. For a long time.

Her father and I continued to make our lives all about her. It was like breathing -- something we simple could not not do. Zen tells us that all paths lead to the top of the mountain, which may be true, but as her path took her further and further from us, the only thing that has kept us climbing has been our little grandchildren. Wouldn't you know it? We have made them the center of our universe.

Since they do not live under our roof, however, as had their mother, there are times when we have empty hours to fill. We run our own business, with Frank being the social networking one while I lean more toward cocooning, we maintain our own home, and we have many activities that let us enjoy each other's company (ranging from good TV, good books, good movies, good music, good coffee on our deck listening mornings to the countless birds that live in our trees, and good wine as we later sit on that same deck watching the sun set). We also talk a lot -- mostly about life.

Which has led us to a new facet that we are now exploring -- called friends. We're somewhat picky, opting for quality over quantity, but it's amazing how the universe has provided recently by arranging that our path cross other paths being travelled by folks (outside of family) who are fun and interesting and inclined to enjoy our company as much as we enjoy theirs. A new chapter in our book is being written, to mix metaphors.

We can't always hold our babies and rock them and sing to them and tell them stories (mostly about horsies), but by golly we can sure brag about them and show off their pictures! As can our friends about their offspring... while we wonder together where all the years have gone, and where future years will lead us. Life continues to be an adventure, even though our footsteps aren't a steady as they used to be.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Weathering Storms

I recently read an accounting of a woman hiking high in the Himalayas with her husband, stepson, guides and pack horses. A sudden, unexpected blizzard spooked the animals, who ran off with all the gear and supplies, while the snow blinded the travelers from seeing even a hand in front of a face. They had no way of knowing if the storm would last hours, days or weeks, but as they huddled together beneath a rock overhang, they passed the night hoping and praying for the best. This story brought to mind an experience of my own, paler by comparison but life altering, nonetheless.

There was a year during the early seventies when a storm hit central California, severe enough to close down San Francisco's Bay Bridge. My brother barely made it across in time to pick me up in Stockton so that we could make a long-planned trip to a yoga retreat in Nevada City that I wanted to visit desperately enough to decide against cancelling our plans. When we arrived we found ourselves in snow, previously unknown at that low elevation. We parked the car when the dirt road became undriveable, grabbed our backpacks, and hiked in for what we expected would be only half hour, What we discovered, however, was that not only were the trails obscured by the cold, wet, white stuff, so were the signs stuck in the ground along the way to show the turns that needed to be made.

The weather worsened. All three of us wore glasses, but had to take them off as they became covered by snow. Thirty minutes became hours, as darkness fell and we became colder and wetter in our jeans, sweatshirts and tennis shoes. I found myself having to use my freezing bare hands and heavy arms to lift one leg in front of me at a time, out of the knee high snow, and place it mere inches in front of me. My son had taken my backpack from me, carrying it in his arms along with his own on his back. At one point I began to think that freezing to death might not be such a hard way to go, as I imagined it would become numbing both mentally and physically. I briefly considered just lying down in the snow and staying there rather than to continue to fight the pain in my body from forcing it to move. I knew, however, that if I did that my son would not go on without me, and that, along with thoughts of my other son at home, is what kept me going. Long story short, we eventually followed a light in the distance, happened upon a cabin miles beyond where we should have veered left, and accepted a flashlight from the couple there who gave seemed so strange that, despite being soaking wet and exhausted, we declined their hot tea and invitation to stay overnight. After five of the longest and most miserable hours of my life we found the retreat. It was one of three times in my life when I feared the grim reaper was headed my way.

At that time I had barely begun my experience of yoga, and wasn't aware of the resources more recently put to use by the woman hiking in the Himalayas. Instead of my dismal mental state mind while stranded in my own storm, she focused her thoughts that night on... the sun, imagining its warmth, but also the reassurance that rests in the awareness that -- no matter what -- the sun always rises. She filled her mind with a sense of calmness and trust in the natural scheme of thinks, knowing that even though she couldn't see the sun shining down on her, she could trust that it was there for her somewhere. Uncertain though she was as to whether or not she would survive, she was filled with the inner conviction that she was fulfilling her purpose in life not by always having what she wanted, but by accepting whatever life sent her way and using it to the best of her ability. Her roots in Raja Yoga (yoga of the mind) were tested that night. She passed.

In the current economy we are all weathering our own storms. Sadly some will not make it out alive financially or psychologically, others will escape but not unscathed. All our lives will be affected, and how we are then, when the climate clears, depends somewhat on the survival skills we put to use now.

The same holds true of emotional storms that can shatter our equanimity. Raja Yoga defines a purusa as "a special being, divine energy, higher power, or God, according to ones' own orientation... " and advises us during times of fear, injury or heartbreak, to detach from suffering by "letting go of the illusion of control over the circumstances of your life." What the Himalayan hiker learned from her experience was that we need to continue along our path doing the best we can, hoping, dreaming, praying and pursuing what we want in life even as we stumble and fall from time to time. But when things don't go according to our plan, there is a grander plan -- and she advises us that realizing the outcome of our efforts is often out of our hands allows us to move forward with the peace that comes from accepting this.