A Light in the Dark

I learned a new-to-me Christmas carol this year. Or maybe it’s a Hanukkah or Solstice carol. It’s pretty universal.

For the first time since Covid, I was back to narrating the annual Christmas recital for a music teacher friend. Every year she writes a story based on the various pieces her students will perform. I read the story — with a modicum of dramatic effect.

I was feeling the holiday spirit as I drove the thirty-miles up our snow-blanketed valley to her studio. Echoing one of my favorite carols, “In the Deep Midwinter,” there was “snow on snow on snow.” The hills and mountains shimmered with whiteness under thin ribbons of blue sky, like remnants of some extravagant gift-wrap.

It was nearly dark when I entered the studio with its two grand pianos nestled into each others’ curves. The audience waited with a hushed, almost reverent expectancy. As a long-ago music teacher I can tell you with authority, the primary element in any student recital is not music, but courage. Every student has practiced hard and long, conquering the challenge of memorization, playing the piece just once more before leaving home, praying to be spared public humiliation.

My friend teaches students of all ages, and I’ve always assumed that adult students must feel especially nervous. They have, after all, their dignity at stake. The first performer allayed that assumption. I don’t know her age but I’m pretty sure she — like me — will never see seventy again. In a brief post-recital chat she acknowledged she’d taken a fifty-five year hiatus from piano lessons. She nevertheless approached the Yamaha unflinchingly, methodically exchanged her bifocals or trifocals for her music-reading glasses (a ritual with which I’m VERY familiar), and played a simple Chopin waltz with adult authority.

When it was the youngest student’s turn, the tiny girl in a ruffled dress was gently nudged forward by her mother. The teacher escorted her to the piano with a whispered reminder, “Say it aloud.”

Starting from the lowest end of the keyboard, the child played a rhythmic counterpoint, two black keys with one hand, the white key between them with the other, while chanting: “D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.” Then up an octave: “D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.” Up and up, octave by octave, all seven of them, until she reached the clanging high notes at the top, and then … all the way back down. She ended to thunderous applause. I felt as if we’d scaled Everest and back. What a great way to teach navigation of the keyboard: look for the two black keys and D will always be in the middle. A surefire compass for beginners.

I drove home under a moonless night sky, way slower than the speed limit, peering into the darkness beyond my headlights, watching for deer who frequent this stretch of highway. I was willing my memory to replay Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” A young man had performed it admirably, melting my heart. But a persistent ear worm blocked it. I kept hearing, “D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.”

Of course. That’s what this time of year is all about. We stare directly into the darkness — the black keys — and we find the light. On that very Sunday, Christians were lighting the fourth candle on their Advent wreaths, Jews were lighting the first Menorah candle of Hanukkah, and tonight — winter solstice — people will repeat an ancient tradition, defying the darkest night of the year by lighting brilliant bonfires.

“D’s in the MID-dle of TWO— BLACK— KEYS.” Or as the writer of the Gospel of John said — a bit more poetically: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

(Image thanks to pixabay.com.)

What Goes Around

I’m down for the count, if someone could just figure out what the count is. I’m on Day Eight of whatever-is-going-around. A friend told me another friend told her this stuff hangs on for twelve days. Great. The Twelve Days of Crudness.

“On the first day of Crudness, my true love brought to me, a carton of nose tissues!” On the second day, two bottles of cough syrup. Third day, three gallons of chicken soup. No, wait! Adding insult to injury, while I was slurping chicken soup an upper left molar cracked and crumbled. The dentist’s office asked if I was taking anything for the pain. The stupid tooth is the only part of my body that DOESN’T hurt, I answered. They’ll try to get me in before Christmas.

Whatever is bugging so many of us is apparently a multiplicity of infectiousness. I’m fully boosted against Covid and consistently test negative. I got my flu shot. Still I wheeze and sneeze. My cough sounds like a Washington State ferry signaling distress. I have no fever, yet no energy and even less motivation. Further assaulting my otherwise cheerful facade was a headline in the Washington Post: “How a viral siege is making some people sick for weeks, even months.”

The article lists all the stuff that’s going around: “Parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus, rhinovirus, adenovirus, influenza A and influenza B. Respiratory enterovirus and human metapneumovirus, too. And then, there’s the rebounding coronavirus …”

I’d been feeling particularly sorry for myself because this is the second time this year I’ve been flattened by an extreme version of what we used to call the “common cold.” But the article cites a CDC determination that normal adults can hit the mat two or three times a year and still be considered healthy overall.

Enough of my wheezy whining. For me this has been an uncomfortable inconvenience. For too many it’s deadly serious. Yesterday the daughter of a dear friend called to tell me her mom is under hospice care, deeply sedated, death imminent. She wanted me to know in advance so I could be “with” her mom in these final hours, even though I’m a hundred and fifty miles away.

Life on the edge of thin ice

In truth her mom is with me. She was a frequent visitor for many years, especially during the holidays, exuberant over being here by the river. With her in my heart, I’ve been watching the spectacle of life and drama of death that unfolds especially now with the river partially shielded under ice. 

Ducks and geese — those sometime swimmers and frequent flyers — land for a while, drift a bit, then lift off, first one or two at a time, finally an entire flock swooping skyward, the ducks’ wings beating frantically, geese honking their irritation (or maybe exasperation?), only to return again minutes or hours later. Their reasons for leaving or returning are known only to them.

Two river otters scamper across the ice before sliding into open water; wild turkeys step gingerly along the brink as if wondering why they’re there; a lone great blue heron stands regally, stretching its elegant neck. 

At one point, a Canada goose isolated itself on the large shelf of ice, settled down, and died. I was depressed, thinking I’d be distracted by the sight of its corpse for some time to come. Then a bald eagle arrived and made quick work of the cleanup. Nature’s own undertaking.

Life is brutal, and it’s beautiful. Pain amidst pleasure, loss after loss, yet ever flowing. Goodbye for now, my dear one. No one ever lived life more fully than you.

Memento Mori

When the committee that organized my high school reunion announced that the sixtieth would be our last, it was like having an ice bucket challenge of mortality dumped on my head. 

They didn’t say why there’d be no more reunions. They didn’t have to. We needed only to observe the “memorial” posters — thumbnail photos of our fellow graduates who’d passed their final, final exam. There were more faces on the posters than living souls in the banquet room. Fewer than twenty percent of our class were still alive and adequately interested and/or able to attend. We survivors among the Class of ’62 should not feel too bad. Born just ahead of the Baby Boom, we “war babies” have already outlived the age expectancy for our generation.

The reunion was in September, a month that ushers in autumn. Poets love to use autumn as a metaphor for old age, preceding winter and death. Hymn writer Susan Palo Cherwien began cheerfully enough with “O blessed spring,” followed by a stanza about “summer heat of youthful years,” then getting to “When autumn cools and youth is cold …” and ultimately, “As winter comes, as winter must, we breathe our last, return to dust …”

The last summer roses and Christmas decoration at the cemetery

I’m writing this on November 2, “All Souls Day,” also known as “Day of the Dead.” This is the time of year when many traditions, dating at least back to ancient Celts, focus on death and those who’ve departed. The Celtic tradition of Samhain became All Hallow’s Eve after Pope Gregory III declared November 1 as All Saints Day in the eighth century. Our death-denying culture has commercialized it as Halloween, a time of macabre costumes and candy treats. Even that is quickly overcome by Christmas hysteria. A stubborn traditionalist, I visited the cemetery on this All Souls Day. As I lay the last roses of summer on my husband’s headstone, I noted a large candy cane with flying reindeer decorating a grave nearby.

As for my own demise, my attitude varies from Woody Allen’s oft-quoted philosophy: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I have a healthy fear of death. I just want it to catch me unaware, suddenly. I’d like to avoid a lingering illness, disability or —dear God, please — senility. And wouldn’t we all?

Even when we outlive actuarial tables, it can be challenging to celebrate these “bonus” years if our bodies taunt, even torture us. Some folks thrive. Others endure loss after loss: mobility, independence, dignity. 

If autumn represents old age advancing toward death, then let my autumn be like today. This autumn day the leaves on my front yard maples turned a shimmering gold so exuberant you could almost hear them shouting an alleluia chorus. 

This day the prolific cherry tomato vine gave up its final, generous bounty before tonight’s killing frost. 

This day sunshine reflected on the river as it quietly flowed beneath a necklace of brilliant, shimmering diamonds. 

This day I received two pieces of news: the unexpected death of one friend and the full remission of cancer for another. 

May all my autumn years be as generous as this day. May I embrace the paradox of autumn, its extravagant celebration of life as a last hurrah and gateway to the mysterious inevitable.

Everybody’s Business

  • Imagine a water bottle that measures your hydration level as you sip.
  • Imagine cell phone batteries that recharge off your body heat.
  • Imagine an ear piece that projects a hologram so you can read a book or watch a movie hands-free.

If you’re seventeen, these are the kinds of technological wonders you can dream up. They’re the kinds of things I was invited to invest in (virtually) during Business Week. Every year high school juniors from our two neighboring towns (Okanogan and Omak, WA) are excused from their regular class schedule for five days to sample what’s ahead for them in the realm of free enterprise. 

After the pandemic hiatus, Business Week returned this year. I was happy to again be invited to help as a judge and “investor.” During a brief training session for judges, facilitator Chris Loftis had me nearly in tears as he described what this year’s students had missed during pandemic isolation.

“These kids have lost something,” he concluded. “We’re going to give it back to them.” The “we” is our local community. While school district sponsorship is essential, professional educators are largely absent. Pretty much all the adults are volunteers. Many are giving up a full week of work; others are retirees willing to revisit the world of work. Area businesses throw in financial support to cover the $14,000 cost. 

Students are sorted into “companies” to dream up product lines, assign corporate responsibilities, determine quality standards and work ethics, and develop marketing strategies. Sounds kind of dull, frankly, but a computer program makes it more like a game. Based on the kids’ decisions, the computer churns out two years worth of various reports like sales volumes, profit and loss, and stock value. Just as in real life, the reports produce cheers and/or teeth-gnashing. By the end of the week, the kids are excited to show off their work for a spirited IPO (initial public offering). The students aren’t graded individually, but they’re rewarded as corporate teams with stock sales. All play money, of course.

I’m not necessarily a cheerleader for capitalism, but it’s the system we live and work under. Within our system there’s space for kindness and community building — if we so choose. Business Week does. The kids experience teaming up with otherwise rivals. Ordinarily the two schools are each other’s No. 1 athletic opponent. Here, students are purposely mixed — about a dozen in each company. Some years ago one of my grandsons who participated in Business Week concluded with surprise that kids from the other school had some pretty acceptable qualities after all.

Every student has a place and a role. Inclusion and participation are highly valued and required. As we judges visited the companies, we were introduced to each student by name and their individual responsibility within the company. At week’s end, every student receives a certificate awarding a college credit — something pretty amazing for a lot of these rural kids who never consider the possibility of college.

Despite pandemic disruption, teens’ resilience was vividly on display. They’d put behind them not only Covid isolation, but inevitable setbacks from the week’s taste of business life.

“Life is more than dollars and cents,” teaches Loftis. “Life is about failure … and then you get back up.”

Getting back up was part of the week’s adventure for several companies. “509 Electronics” got into trouble with the public after marketing a low-quality product, explained their CEO. After the company decided against a recall, the public (via computer program) raised a fuss. The company apologized, offered a recall and changed its manufacturer. The lesson, said the CEO: “Don’t rely on people you don’t know.”

As a consumer of a certain age, I was smitten by another company, but as a potential investor, not so  much. “Design, Love, Virtue” had chosen to target elderly consumers. They’d done admirable research into their market audience, coming up with a simple-to-use flip phone that promised a crisp speaker, easy-to-read screen and (hallelujah!) ultra-responsive tech support. They acknowledged making “hard decisions” along the way, opting for strategies that would benefit the environment, their customers and employees. Their product was so popular, they ran out. “You never want to do that,” a fellow judge muttered out of their hearing. Flooded with back orders, they watched their stock tank. Undaunted, they were promising skeptical investors a rosy comeback. I sympathetically put in a few bucks — no more than I could afford to lose.

Business Week got its start in the 1970s as a residential summer program — something like cheerleader or basketball camp — at Central Washington University (then state college). The residential program has since spread to college and university campuses in eleven states plus Poland and Italy. Yet only a handful of school districts make it available on a local basis to all students. While the residential programs offer full scholarships, it’s still unlikely that very many of our local kids could afford a week off from summer jobs to attend. Or would even feel motivated.

 One reason the in-school program is less than popular with educators, I’m told, is that teachers are under pressure to prepare students for standardized tests. Giving up a full week away from “teaching to the test” is asking too much.

I don’t know if our students’ test scores are remarkably above or below the norm. I could research it, I suppose. But I’m satisfied with what I saw kids take away from Business Week — a few of life’s lessons that can’t be measured on any test other than life itself.

When Time Speeds Up

I’m tired of hearing the weary maxim that old age is not for the “faint-hearted” (attributed to Mae West) or “sissies” (Bette Davis). Could we of a certain age show a modicum of gratitude?

Most studies on aging set the boundary for being old at sixty-five. I know of no one who feels old at sixty-five. If they do, they probably felt old at thirty-five. But something — something — happens in our seventies. A friend, seven years older, alerted me on my seventieth birthday that major changes were ahead, and soon. 

That was just recently … No, wait! That was nearly eight years ago. Or, as long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad observes at age seventy-two: Time “actually speeds up as you get older. It speeds up exponentially every month, every day, every hour.” She was quoted in New Yorker magazine’s review of the podcast, “70 Over 70.” Reviewer Rachel Syme observed we might seek wisdom from the old but not always find it. “[W]e’re all works in progress,” she concluded, “up to the very last moment.”

That “very last moment” once was so far distant I couldn’t see it over the horizon. Now it’s visible, flying fast in my direction. Life expectancy is declining in the United States — by one-and-a-half years in 2020. The average life span fell from 78.8 to 77.3 years. Looking at it another way, if you’ve made it past age seventy-seven, you’re into the bonus years!

Also on that seventieth birthday I was given a book, “70 Things to Do When You Turn 70.” I haven’t had time to read it yet. Flipping through, I spotted an essay by a social justice activist, Sandy Warshaw. She wrote: “My seventies have been a time of self-realization and self-actualization built on the foundation of the three decades before.” 

For most of us bonus-year recipients, those “decades before” produced scar tissue — physical and emotional. We’ve been there, done that, don’t need to any longer. We’re free to let go of stuff, of attitudes, judgments, grudges and fears.

“When you age, you become wiser in so many ways,” said the late Coretta Scott King at age seventy-four. “You make adjustments for having less stamina, but you know in your mind what you can achieve.”

Living fully in the bonus years is not the same as retirement. Many retired folks think they’ve “earned” a particular lifestyle, so charmingly illustrated in AARP magazine ads. All that golfing; traveling; sunny climes; and electrically powered, multi-position recliners. Bonus years are not what we’ve earned but what we’re given as a matter of grace.

Years ago, my late husband was studying life expectancy charts. Given the difference in our ages, he predicted I would live another twenty-two years after he died. He lived to age seventy-five, “graduating” (as a friend refers to death) in 2007. You do the math, because I won’t bother. All I need to know is, I’m alive and feeling good today. With grace, tomorrow will bring the same.

Simply Christmas

Old folks, I decided as a child, don’t know how to celebrate Christmas. I occasionally accompanied my parents visiting elderly church members, most of whom had no Christmas trees or decorations, no apparent interest in presents. Cookies, if offered, came from a tin and tasted weird.

Now after nearly eight decades of Christmases, I get it. At a certain age (varies for each of us), we let go of futile attempts to recreate the Christmas magic that can happen only when we’re children. 

When it comes to remembering childhood Christmases, no writer can outdo Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” My memories of a child’s Christmas in Minnesota echo Thomas’s opening passage: “One Christmas was so  much like another … that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” 

Probably both.

In my childhood, certain traditions were sacrosanct. The main course on Christmas Eve, in deference to my Swedish father, was the notorious Scandinavian seafood dish, lutefisk. It was the only meal of the year when we children were allowed to pass up what was placed on the table. As an adult, I finally developed a taste for the pickled-in-lye white fish, but where I live, it’s impossible to find.

My memories of unique Christmases have to do with presents — which for a child is the whole point. There was the year I was given a Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer lapel pin for my coat. His nose lighted up — a handy way to illuminate the hymnbook during our candlelight worship service. 

There was the year I received a much-longed-for doll with REAL hair. I immediately gave her a shampoo and set. As a result, every day was a bad-hair day for the rest of her existence.

There was the year the gift from my mother’s “rich” aunt arrived in a large carton, too heavy for just one person to lift. We kids were intoxicated with anticipation: it was the size of a TV console, and we were the only home in town without a TV. Or so it seemed. Finally, the moment arrived. As the carton was slit open, we spotted a lovely mahogany case, containing? 

An entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica. 

Even my adult Christmas memories have a childlike flavor, such as watching my husband meticulously place his favorite, bubbling lights on the lower branches of our tree where his tiny grandchildren could enjoy them.

Now my favorite Christmas present is the presence of Christmas. We open that gift simply by opening our hearts. Because my late husband was born on Christmas day, the high point of my celebration is laying a blanket of greens on his grave. Any self-respecting kid would roll her eyes, but that’s okay. Kids have important work to do, living the magic that will become precious Christmas memories decades from now.

The Joy of Solitude

A friend asked if I went on a silent retreat during Thanksgiving. True, I spent the week at Holden Village, a spiritual retreat center where I lived from 2011-2014. A former mining town high in the North Cascade Mountains, Holden was once described by a former director as “a retreat for extroverts.”

Holden Village dining hall decked out for the Christmas feast. (File photo from a previous year.)

I, like most people who live alone, have been on pretty much of a silent retreat since spring of 2020. I generally read during my silent, solo meals. Thanksgiving dinner in the Holden dining hall was served to about a hundred folks, all masked unless fork was en route to mouth. Masks did little to muffle the crowd’s chatter and musical laughter, accompanied by the percussion of clanging pots and pans in the kitchen and metronomic beat from the ping pong table in a corner of the large hall. Music less symphonic, more heavy metal rock to my ears. Unnerving, which is exactly why I needed to be there. Solitude had been getting altogether too comfortable. 

Last summer a few friends and I, gathered outdoors, admitted to each other that we were thriving in social isolation. We felt almost guilty, enjoying ourselves when many people are suffering and grieving. All of us in that group live close to nature. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I were stuck in an urban apartment with a view of concrete and asphalt. I know I’d feel differently if I didn’t have the companionship of my dog.

“Don’t fear solitude,” advised writer Paulo Coelho. “If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself. But don’t get too attached to it — it may become an addiction.”

Besides which, snarked another writer, Erica Jong, “Solitude is un-American.” Indeed, we loners are under a lot of pressure not to enjoy solitude on that thoroughly American holiday, Thanksgiving. The pressure will only increase as we move toward Christmas, a day not even Scrooge was allowed to spend alone.

Being alone does not equate with loneliness, and loneliness is not the same as solitude, noted a lovely essay in Psychology Today — in 2003! That was long before “social distancing” became common to our vocabulary.

“Loneliness is marked by a sense of isolation,” the magazine explained. “Solitude, on the other hand, is a state of being alone without being lonely and can lead to self-awareness.” 

If solitude were to have a patron saint, a likely candidate would be Henry David Thoreau who observed, “I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.”

Even during my un-retreat, in between meals and various gatherings, I’d seek refuge in the solitude of my room, curled up with a good book. Much as I enjoyed meeting up with old friends at Holden and making new ones, I’ve gotta admit: the best part of the week was reuniting with my dog (he’d spent the week at the pet resort) and stepping into my house, embraced once again by my silent retreat. 

Thank you to Maxime Lagacé, whose web site, “Wisdom Quotes,” provided a few of the above quotes. Visit the site to read more pithy observations about wisdom.  

Beyond Vanity: Admit it — You too are gifted

At the beginning of a book discussion group on Zoom, one of our members offered to sing a song he’d composed. First, he apologized, “I hope this isn’t too vain.” He’s no amateur singer/song writer, so his offer was more than welcome.

The song proved to be an ideal introduction to the evening’s topic. At the same time, his use of the word “vain” evoked a memory from my sophomore year in college. A friend had asked me to join her in visiting the family of a mutual friend. Their father had recently been killed when a shed he was dismantling collapsed on top of him. As we sat with the family, trying to share their grief, they asked me to play the piano. I hesitated. Outside of a church setting, I was uncomfortable, even fearful of “performing.” I was a victim of my own false vanity.

Nervously I sat down at the aged upright piano and played a complex piece I’d been working on. The music ended with thundering chords, after which came utter silence. I turned from the piano to see tears of gratitude on every face. The mother said simple words I would always remember: “Never withhold your gift. Always share it.”

My musical gift is relatively small. Over the years I’ve been humbled and gratified to play with musicians whose gifts are far greater. Sometimes, too, I’ve played with those whose smaller gift was enabled, maybe even enlarged, through my accompaniment.

The Bible reminds us (1 Corinthians 12) that each of us has a variety of gifts. Every one of us is a gifted individual, but gifts fall into the use-it-or-lose-it category. Gifts have to recognized and shared, or they disappear.

I’m especially appreciative of people whose hands are gifted in various ways. Too often manual labor is under-appreciated and underpaid. In recent months around my house, I’ve enjoyed watching the craftsmanship of a carpenter, the patience of painters, the efficiency of a window washer, the youthful energy of kids pulling weeds in my garden.

The joy of heaven is found on earth when we share our gifts. Back to that vanity issue, it’s a tricky maneuver, finding just the right balance between confidence and humility. For most people, honing and offering their various gifts earns a paycheck. The real reward, though — the reward that keeps our world going round — is the gratitude of those with whom we’ve shared, for whom we’ve opened our treasure chest of gifts.

This week I renewed acquaintance through email with an 85-year-old man whom I hadn’t been in touch with for more than forty years. Even then he had an uncanny gift of vision. He recognizes ideas that will impact the future in positive ways. As an entrepreneur he has launched numerous businesses and is still at it. His visionary gift has made him wealthy. More important to him, he’s created job opportunities for hundreds, probably thousands of people.