You Know You’re Old When You’ve Outlived the Trees You Planted

The chainsaw massacre was about to begin when the normally docile young woman intervened. Later, she described the episode during our Zoom call. For years she and her roommate had been ideal tenants, quiet, tidy, paying their rent on time. But when she spotted the crew preparing to remove a stately tree in front of their house, she vehemently protested to her landlord. A conference with arborist, crew and others ensued. The tree survived. Neighbors quietly praised her intervention, admitting they’d been reluctant to get involved. 

“This was so unlike me,” she told her Zoom audience. The chat box filled with congratulatory notes and emoji applause. My emotions were mixed. Trees tend to live a long time and deservedly so, for all the benefits they offer. Yet just like us, trees have a life cycle, an inevitable end.

 I once was that young woman, what the cynical call a “tree hugger.” A love for trees is still deeply rooted in my heart. No pun there; a simple truth. I also know — even without seeing this particular  tree — that its reprieve is temporary. The USDA says urban trees tend to live only twenty-eight years at most — about twenty percent of a normal tree life span. Their congested environment makes them susceptible to pests, disease, inadequate care, inappropriate placement, improper planting, asphalt generated heat, etc., etc.

Living where I do, in a rural, desert-like shrub steppe environment, I’ve been a rabid defender of trees. While I was still editing the local newspaper, the city superintendent knew me well enough to call in advance whenever a tree had to be removed from the public domain. He’d explain the detection of disease and consequent threat to human health should the tree keel over on its own or topple in a windstorm. 

My town boasts a luxurious canopy of green, none of it native, and has been officially declared a “Tree City U.S.A.” by the Arbor Day Foundation. This small urban forest is a legacy of pioneer women, who a century or more ago planted the first deciduous trees, hauling water in buckets to nurture them in this arid country. More recently, volunteers tore up sidewalks to provide irrigation for trees along Main Street.

I’ve planted my share of trees over the years. I remember how eager I was the day we planted red maples in the front yard — anxious for them to grow and give luxurious shade. What I hadn’t figured on was that I’d be aging right along with those trees.

Once, my husband and I made an impulse buy in support of a newly established nursery. We brought home the tiny pine and scouted the yard for a place to plant it. While I looked around for available open space in the lawn, my wiser husband looked upward. He nixed my first choice because eventually the tree would get tangled in wires. Pines generally live at least fifty and often hundreds of years. This one gave us three beautiful decades before it became mortally diseased. 

Even as I mourned, I marveled at the skill of the sawyer who limb by limb denuded the tree and finally sawed off the naked trunk. He was, I hate to admit, graceful.

“I make it look easy, don’t I,” he boasted with a grin. I witnessed the deafening process as tree limbs and trunk were chopped into chips that would become mulch that would eventually fade back into Mother Earth. All is temporary, yet circular.

My diseased pine on his way back to Mother Earth

A question of location

“How did she end up there?!” (Read the word “there” with a tone of disbelief and possible disdain.) The question — more of an exclamation — was relayed to me by a friend. He was recounting a conversation he’d had with a long-ago mutual acquaintance who, when informed of my whereabouts after all these years, posed the very question I ask myself frequently.

The average American relocates about a dozen times over their life span. At some point do they, like me at age 77, wonder if this is the last stop. If so, how did I end up here (a tone of disbelief? disdain? delight?).

“Here” in my case is Omak, Washington, a gritty small town that wrestled itself into existence a little more than a century ago, smack-dab in the middle of a shrubsteppe valley — the Okanogan — where natives thrived for at least ten thousand years. Romance brought me here more than forty years ago — love for a man and our mutual love for small-town newspapers. My expectations were clear. We’d have fun running a newspaper until retirement, when we’d move to somewhere more, uh, civilized. Then karma happened, and here I am. Still.

The why-here question arises this gloomy morning with no glint of sun, with dingy snowbanks likely in place until June’s 100-plus temperatures, with memories of the many choices I’ve made in a lifetime. What about those roads not taken? Where else might I be now? Just then, an eagle soars past at eye level, scanning the river for fish, disrupting the ducks that have been quietly meditating just a few yards from my back door. 

The river is why I’m here. Not a raging, white-water river nor a large channel with ships and barges. Just a pleasant, hard-working stream, remnant of the Pleistocene-era glacial movement that shaped this valley’s cragged walls. The Okanogan River waters crops and wildlife, nurtures fish and fowl, and entertains folks who float aboard inflatable vessels on a hot summer’s day. 

The eagle having lifted my spirits upon her mighty wing span, I turn to breakfast — a few strips of beefsteak over toast. I eat meat only occasionally. These slices of steak originated from an animal raised on friends’ ranch, up-valley, where cattle really do live out their days beneath blue skies, never see a feedlot and are humanely butchered. The toast is artisan bread, baked locally, sold at the Okanogan Farm Stand, where I also buy local organic produce and eggs.

Still, I have an appetite for the world beyond. I open the Feb. 7, 2022, issue of “The New Yorker” magazine as I cut into my breakfast. And there, on page 28, in an essay by the esteemed John McPhee, I’m right back here, in the Okanogan. (Spoiler alert: I plan to give away McPhee’s punch line. If you want to read his version first, go here and scroll to “Citrus, Booze, and Ah Bing.”) An Easterner and aficionado of fruit (he wrote the book “Oranges” among many), McPhee and his wife were touring Washington state in 1982, hungering for cherries. He exults that “the Okanogan Valley is the Oxford and Cambridge of the Bing cherry.”

He describes crossing the North Cascade Mountains on famed Highway 20 with nary a comment about that breathtaking route. His description upon descending into the Okanogan: “Dessicated. Lovely. Irrigated green. Trees punctuated with deep-red dots.”

He didn’t stop at the newspaper office, which was just as well. We were probably busy and would’ve given the famous author short shrift unless he had local news to report. Turned out he did. He’d been given directions to an orchard owned and operated by “a knowledgeable married couple who will prefer to remain nameless.”

Too bad. In small-town newspapers, the rule is, “Names are news.” McPhee tells of arriving at the orchard, finding an abundance of cherries along with “shouting, angry shouting, more shouting, and the married owners appeared, on the apron of their barn, in a fistfight.”

Forty years later, the Okanogan cannot claim to be more civilized, but we are exotic enough to make it into the pages of “The New Yorker.” Could be, that’s why I’m here.

Winter ice turns the Okanogan River into a jigsaw puzzle

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.  

Homelessness Is Not Hopelessness

“Mac died, y’know.”

No, I hadn’t known. Will and I were chatting in the newly constructed main room of the Okanogan Community Homeless Shelter. Will probably has an official title. I just know him as the driving energy and organizer of the all-volunteer, local effort to help homeless people.

Mac had been a regular guest during annual shelter operations from November through March, the cold months. He’d be waiting at six p.m., when the shelter opens, when I’d arrive once or twice a week with a hot casserole for the evening meal. He was eager to carry the casserole inside, eager to tell me about his efforts to find a job, eager to show me his wife’s photo — cracked and creased inside his otherwise empty wallet.

Mac taught me a profound lesson. The shelter strictly requires guests to be clean (of drugs) and sober. Guests spend the first thirty minutes in conversation with screeners before they’re admitted for the night. As far as I knew, Mac never failed the screening. 

After the shelter closed each season, I would see Mac hanging out by the gazebo in Pioneer Park, near my home. My dog and I frequently walk through the small park, which is a way-stop for homeless folks. We’re usually greeted cordially and rarely asked for money — which I never carry. 

One day Mac, alone at the gazebo, surprised me by asking if I could spare a few bucks. I assured him I don’t carry cash and continued home, troubled as I walked. I thought about Mac’s willingness to follow the shelter’s rules, his futile efforts to find work, his estrangement from family. I grabbed a twenty dollar bill, got in my car, and drove back to the gazebo. 

“I know you, Mac,” I said, “and I know you’ll spend this the right way.” 

The next day I again saw Mac in the park, drunk out of his mind. That was last spring. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’d taken the easy way out, thrown money at the problem. At the very least, I could’ve driven to a fast food joint and bought a gift card. Mac ultimately died of acute alcohol poisoning. I am sadder and wiser.

All the money in the world couldn’t help Mac, but don’t misunderstand me. It’s vital that we invest in ways to help, both through private charities and public (tax) dollars. There are no quick, one-size-fits-all solutions. Obviously, homelessness is symptomatic of deeper problems. More than a half-million people in our country are homeless any given night. Washington’s homeless population ranks us among the nation’s top ten problem states. 

Still, homelessness is not hopelessness. I’ve witnessed repeatedly how shelter guests move onward and upward — with help: help from friends or families, help from nonprofit or government programs, help from a combination of efforts, from a willingness to give and receive help. Homelessness is not hopelessness, as long as we — all of us neighbors — are willing to help.

One Simple Move

I moved my chair. I mention this only because you may have a chair like mine. It’s your sanctum sanctorum, your refuge dedicated to comfort, relaxation and an occasional nap. On an adjacent table you may have piled books, newspapers, magazines, beverage of choice, digital devices, remote controls … whatever sedentary activities your chair accommodates. 

Your chair may be a recliner. Mine is not. It’s the old-fashioned Queen Anne wing style with a high back so I can rest my head when I feel a snooze coming on. Both chair and matching foot stool have been reupholstered twice over their many years of service. They’re looking worn and dingy yet again.

It’s discomforting, this new location. I can’t say I like it better. In fact, I may not like it at all. Yet, there are advantages. The light is better for reading. The chair previously blocked a section of bookcase that I needed to reference frequently. I could’ve moved the books, but the chair was easier. Now it blocks a closet that houses out-of-season clothes. I’ll need to shove the chair aside only a couple times a year.

The real reason for relocating is a change of perspective. I needed a new way of looking at the world, because the world itself isn’t looking at all the same. Most — maybe all of us — are experiencing that sense of unfamiliarity. A poll cited in “The Week” magazine reports that eighty-one percent of Americans do not expect life to return to normal anytime soon. Twenty-six percent say life will never return to normal. Whatever normal was. 

And was normal all that great? My dad liked to say that “the ‘good old days’ were formerly known as ‘these trying times.’”

I can still watch the Okanogan River from my chair’s new location. At the risk of overextending a metaphor, my previous view was upriver. The current, along with occasional flotsam and jetsam, headed my way. Now my view is downriver and the flow of energy pulls away from me. I trust it won’t pull from my own energy.

Whether looking upriver or down, I watch the constant activity of wildlife: birds, ducks, geese, great blue heron, eagles returning soon, the occasional leaping fish, and playful river otters. Add to that, I now face the downriver bridge with a different kind of wildlife. It’s a busy little bridge with a steady stream of trucks, cars, and buses. From this distance, I can’t make out the people inside the vehicles. I don’t know their gender identity, race, ethnicity, religion, political preferences, income level, intelligence, interests, or skill set. But I feel connected. I extend a silent blessing, because they’re people on a bridge, coming from somewhere, going somewhere.

That’s pretty much where we all are these days. On a bridge, headed somewhere even though the destination may be uncertain. Some people believe we’re headed nowhere. If that’s your point of view, it might help to move your chair.

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.

The Good Life: Making Room for Interruptions

Tuesday, according to my plan, would be a day of quiet, solitary remembrance. Then life interrupted.

A year ago, on September 26, 2020, my longtime friend, Mary Lou — more intimately known as Lou, quietly passed into her next realm of existence. She’d been a partner in music and adventure, my confessor, stalwart supporter, and exemplar of life well-lived.

As we do every morning, my dog and I greeted Tuesday by heading outside to the patio to stretch and survey life on the river. A great blue heron that had been stalking fish from the riverbank quietly lifted itself into flight. The day before it had squawked at me angrily for interrupting and flew upriver in a huff. This day it changed direction, gliding downriver, a weightless soul in the air, an invocation for this sacred day.

Thus ended my solitude and silence. The first phone call came from a friend whose widowed father had suffered two TIAs (“mini” strokes). She’s confronting the multitude of what-next questions that comes with aging parents. She doesn’t need me to tell her what to do, but she did need an ear willing to listen as she ponders her options.

Ensuing calls were less critical. The fellow who was scheduled to come last week to wash windows and didn’t show up wants to come next week. Whenever, I said. The fellow who was supposed to come last week to finish putting heat tape in my gutters and didn’t show up wanted to come Wednesday. Fine, I said. The soonest the optometrist can see me is January 13, 2022. Great, I sighed. 

An inheritance and a hug

I put my phone in my pocket and slipped into Lou’s sweater jacket. It’s a multi-colored, heavy knit, perfect for walking in autumn. She’d loved it, and her husband insisted I inherit it. I could feel the warmth of her hug through the sleeves of the sweater as the dog and I walked through the park. The trees that had been wearing a brilliant display of gold were now shedding their leaves with the insouciance of a rich woman dropping her jewelry onto the dressing table.

It was a day for homemade soup, but the black beans and rice concoction I had simmering on the stove tasted flat. I reached for “Slap Ya Mama.” Lou, a southerner from soul to drawl, introduced me to this zesty spice mixture on my first visit to New Orleans. She was, as usual, ahead of her time. It’s now available at supermarkets nationwide.

Two more phone calls. Both from fellow widows — one a few years in, the other less than a year — both, like me, figuring out where we are in life, simply wanting to chat. 

Finally, a brief visit from my neighbor and his sister to discuss the music I’m to provide for their father’s memorial service on Sunday.

By now it was past dark. I was remembering Lou’s final weeks. No matter how exhausted she was, she refused to turn away visitors. “Hey, how are ya doin’?” she’d call out cheerfully when they were barely through the door. She’d somehow muster energy her body didn’t have to chat, counsel and console. 

I thought about how she’d woven herself into the in-between spaces of a day I’d intended to be all about her. And I knew. Mary Lou wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The Final Passage: Out of time but not out of opportunity

In the late 1970s, journalist Gail Sheehy helped a lot of people understand their lives with her book “Passages.” Alas, I was not one of them. I tried to read it, but didn’t get far before setting it aside for my usual fare, a murder mystery. In those years I was more into detection than introspection.

The subtitle of Sheehy’s book is “Predictable Crises in Adult Life.” She describes those crises using the framework of decades: The Trying 20s, The Catch 30s, The Forlorn 40s, The Refreshed (or Resigned) 50s.

The Library of Congress listed “Passages” as one of the ten most influential books of modern times. But that was then. A thirtieth anniversary edition of the book was issued in 2006. In the new introduction, Sheehy (who died just last year) wrote she’d been asked to address what had changed since the book’s initial publication. 

“What hasn’t changed?” she asked rhetorically. “Passages” is steeped in the culture and mores of the ’70s. An apparently younger reviewer on the website goodreads.com declared, “I’m SO glad I didn’t grow up then. [As a woman] I’m so grateful for my ‘freedom.’”

My own adult passages did not coincide with the decades but occurred like clockwork every fourteen years with a major event in my life. At age twenty-one, I married my high school sweetheart, which he observed much later, seemed at the time “like the thing to do.” The next fourteen years included an amicable divorce, much searching and discovery.

At age thirty-five I married my soulmate, John, and settled into fourteen years of maximum productivity, a full life. When I was forty-nine, John suffered a brain stem stroke, resulting in total paralysis and catapulting us both into an era of disruption and deeper discovery. Fourteen years later, when I was sixty-three, John’s death coincided with a sense of my own maturity.

Now at seventy-seven, it’s not a personal event but a global pandemic that has ushered in what is most likely my final fourteen. I don’t know if that’s fourteen years, months, weeks, or days. Google says the number fourteen in Chinese tradition means “guaranteed death.” Well, we’re all guaranteed that. 

I do know that I’m afraid, but not of death, which Jane Goodall at age eighty-seven describes as “the next great adventure.” My fear comes with the certainty that the next fourteen years are critical for the life of our mother, Earth. She and I may be on a parallel path, and her health is already more fragile than mine. Climate crisis is not some day. Climate crisis is now. As recent months proved, our four seasons now are autumn, winter, spring, and hell. Moreover, hell is sneaking across the boundaries, invading spring and autumn. 

In the darkest of black humor columns, New Yorker writer Dennard Dayle suggests, “You’re not looking at the death of the human race. Just the death of the  human dream.” I disagree. We may be out of time, but we’re not out of opportunity. And opportunity offers passages to dreams, to hope.

We have the opportunity of choice. We each make hundreds of choices every day. Many, if not most, affect the whole of creation. When we make choices as captives of a consumer culture instead of as free children of a beloved Mother Earth, we diminish the dream. Paraphrasing theosophy writer Alice Bailey: “Let Reality govern my every thought, and Truth be the heart of my life. For so it must be for all of humanity. Please help me do ‘my part.’”