Friday, August 29, 2014

And She's Down

I can't believe it! I just wake boarded on a Flowrider at the Waterpark of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. I had gone down twice on my belly early in the afternoon. But in the evening, I watched as Nick and his friends rode tubes and inner tubes.  I know how to slide down tubes. The wake boards were fascinating. That took real technique.

This employee, a young guy who I'd watched dancing on the water the night before, taught thirty or thirty five people, kids mostly, as I sat at a corner studying how they did it. They were standing on the narrower wake board. Every ride ended in a fall. Every single one. Not a soul my age was trying. Well, a few men tried, but absolutely no older women. There were five year old kids doing it. There were fat kids doing well. There were twenty-something's doing it. It was great!

Finally, about ten minutes before the water park closed for the day, the nice guy who had been helping everyone looked straight at me and asked if I wanted a try. 

"Will it hurt when I fall?" I asked. I was already taking off my water shoes and cover-up. 

"No, it's like a trampoline," he said. 

"Yes! I want to go!" 

He let me hold his wrists until I got my balance on the board. Finally, I let go with one hand, then another. I could feel the water rushing under my feet, a memory of water skiing when I was a kid. I have only skied once or twice since I was twelve. I used to be addicted to it. I used to be pretty good at it, but I never had a chance to try a wake board.

I stood on that wake board and rode that wave, tears streaming down my face. I was so incredibly happy. 

In twenty seconds or so, I was down. It was awesome!

Thanks for listening, jb

Monday, August 25, 2014

Leaning Out

My nephew just graduated from college. I've talked to him a couple of times and one night, we messaged back and forth on Facebook for an hour about what he was going to do. Today, I'm writing him a letter to go along with a graduation gift check.

I'm terrible at writing in greeting cards. I don't know why. I either write something inane or I go on and on and end up having to sign my name in a tiny corner that's left. My handwriting starts out large enough and as I realize I'm running out of space, it gets tinier and tinier until it just fades away or is illegible. It's just like me. Once I get going, I don't know how to stop.

There should be courses in middle school about how to compose words for a greeting card. THAT would be valuable. How do you write something that's been written a thousand times before and that the greeting card company has already written better than you could ever write?  It's impossible! Plus, you're supposed to put in something that is between you and the person you're sending it to that makes it special.  Special.

A year and a half ago, my other nephew also graduated from college. Yet four months earlier, he had gotten angry at an opinion I expressed and hung up on me. He never managed to call me back to apologize about it. That greeting card should have said, "You hung up on me, so I'm sending you half as much for your graduation as I would have sent." I wanted to write to him about how people react to humility. I wanted to ask him to imagine a world in which only one opinion mattered. Even if it were his opinion, it would be a very lonely world. I wanted him to think about people he knew who treated him with arrogance and superiority. I wanted him to learn.

This card will be easier because I haven't argued with this nephew who just graduated, but there are things I want to tell him, things I want him to learn. He's not certain what kind of job he's going to try for. He doesn't feel confident going out into the world, traveling without a plan. He could go anywhere. He could do anything.

When I was twenty-two and had just graduated from college, I felt so absolutely free. At that point in my life, I was the happiest I had ever been. Even now, it only ranks third to the day I married Mike and the day I gave birth to Nick. I was free. I could go anywhere. I could do anything.

I didn't start to worry about the realities of making a living until I struggled with money after I got a job. I loved the freedom life offered me at my graduation. I was beginning, spreading my wings to fly. The rest of my life was a blank page that I got to fill in. The world was my playground.

I've only been rappelling once in my life. I remember standing at the top of the cliff with ropes tied around my waist and thighs. Other Scouts had gone before and a few were still waiting at the top with me. At my belly button, ropes came together in a complicated knot I still haven't mastered and from that, a single line held me. Mike had anchored it to a tree. He showed me how to let out my own line. My only anchor to this world was the grip I had on my own umbilical.

"Now, you're going to want to face me and lean backward over the cliff with your feet spread apart. You can let out your line as fast or as slowly as you want," he said with a grin.

At those words, a wave of adrenaline shot through me down to my fingertips and toes. I loved that feeling. I stepped closer to the edge and looked down over the cliff. The Scouts below me, the ones that had already gone, looked tiny from this distance. Even though it was just about three or four stories high, the drop looked enormous, enough to kill if I fell off untethered. The thrill shot through me again.

"Don't go over face forward. That would be bad," Mike said.  I'm sure I was chattering my uncertainty to him, but have no idea what I said. I just danced around for a while until Scouts below started to yell their encouragement.

"You can do it!" one shouted.

"It's great!"

"Just lean into the rope!" someone yelled.

"Try leaning into the rope away from the edge. It's like sitting down in a chair. Trust the line," Mike said. I tried it. He was right.

We are limited only by our own ideas, by our own fears, by our approach to that moment when we are asked to lean backward over a cliff. Will we trust that thin cord that links us to safety? Will the moment be filled with fear and exuberance or fear and reluctance?

Eventually, after the shouting died down, I looked at Mike. I put tightened the rope and felt my weight on it. It held. I could feel it. All I had to do was trust myself and that rope and fall backward over a cliff. I let the pressure loosen a bit, I took a deep breath, kept my eyes locked with Mike's, and I leaned back into the seat the ropes made for me.

There I was!

Scouts cheered. I hung out over the cliff. I could look down at them. I let out a little rope and hopped. I could hop from from side to side. It was glorious, even seeing my umbilical disappear up over the top of the cliff.

I was back down on solid ground before I knew it. My adrenaline soared through my veins but the ride was over. I wanted to go again.

Graduating is like that. You have to trust yourself. You have to lean backward and fall over that cliff into a new life and feel the glory of what you might allow yourself to do. You can go anywhere. You can do anything.

That's what I want to tell my nephew.

Thank you for listening, jb

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Deeper Breath

Hey Mike, I've been looking at the Eastern sky, thinking that this is the sky you are staring into. Laundry has piled up on your side of the bed and I haven't folded it because it's at least a comforting shape next to me. It is not you, not warm enough to be you.

I've tried to imagine where you are on that imaginary line through the Olympics. I've kept track of how many miles you may have hiked. I've tried to imagine the view in the temperate rain forest. I've thought of the food you're eating, unconsciously making food for Nick and I with pasta or rice, food with bits of chicken or beef and vegetables.

We have kept our schedule, hanging out with friends each day, going to karate and the gym and the Boy Scout meeting. We've even shopped for food and walked the dog. Yes, things are on schedule, for the most part.

But we seem to be quietly staying up too late, as if we're waiting. We're getting along better than we usually do. There is a mild melancholy thrown over us. We're more grateful for our friends and for each other.

I woke in a sweat this morning, thinking that you might be having trouble. I gently told myself you could as easily be having a great trip. The people you're with are amazing boys and men. I trust them to care for you if you need it. The people you're with are good friends and are bound to become deeper friends.

And still I worried that you weren't sleeping, that you might be sore, that you might not be eating enough, or worse, that you might not be drinking enough. So much can happen in the woods. One small mistake can float gently down upon another small mistake and so on until the quiet night has drifted under three feet deep and someone is in serious trouble without anyone ever noticing.

I have to tell myself to take a deeper breath. I have to tell myself to do the things I wrote on my list to do, some of which you have asked me to take care of. The night out my window seems dark and the cars whizzing by seem like strangers. I found out yesterday that a friend drives past my house on his way to and from work and it was a small comfort that I have to remind myself of now.

If you were at home, you'd be asleep by now. The house would be as quiet as it is now. The dog would be sighing for me to turn out the light and leave him to his rest. But it would be a peaceful quiet and I would revel in it.


I am alright and you are probably alright too. But after ten days gallivanting around France with my sister in June, and your week at camp with Nick and the younger Scouts in July, and now this, another week without you, because you're on a trail in the wilderness in August, I am ready to settle into ordinary days of errands and meals and volunteering and the work of caring for our house in September. I am ready, past ready really, to have you come back home, even if all you will do is quietly fall asleep on the couch with the TV on, even if Nick and I both chatting at you at the same time until we realize that you're dozing, even if we have to turn down the volume and tip-toe around your chair. I am ready to look at the pink of your cheeks and your eyelashes lying across them and your head tilted a bit too far to one side. I am ready for you to be home, even if all I get to do is kiss you hello before I need to leave you be for a while. That will be the moment when I'll be able to take a deeper breath again and the air will be so sweet.

Thank you for listening, jb

Monday, August 18, 2014

Snow White and the Three Bears

I love having a dog.

Late this afternoon, after procuring pizza for three teenaged boys, I abandoned them for a little while so I could walk Teddy. I mostly trusted these kids and Teddy needed it. He was overdue since we skipped a walk yesterday and went to the movies instead.

I headed over to the local trail. It's a seven minute drive from my house. It's a known trail, paved except for a section that goes up to the ridge. It's easy to think the trail will be boring since I've been walking it with Teddy since he was a puppy. I know exactly how long it is in different sections. I know which friends live in which yards. I look in their yards, listen to their chickens clucking and crowing. I've watched their horses shake flies off their withers. Usually, I have to look for new things as I go. I have to try to find tiny miracles, an Indian pipe plant by the trail, ferns growing in the crook of a tree, or even gnarled branches that have survived many generations.

Once I found a dead fawn curled up in the grass by the trail as if it were sleeping. But it had died, not quite a miracle. Still, I marveled at its spots and the way its tender nose and gangly legs tucked into a tight circle. I often go the entire length of the trail seeing no more living creatures than Teddy and a few birds along the trail.

This time, I decided to take the trail away from the paved section and up toward the ridge. I needed a little more exercise than I could get walking two miles on level ground. I have felt quiet in the woods lately. I have felt as though I belonged. Just to the left of the paved trail about a quarter of a mile up the hill, I heard a small sound at my feet. A garter snake warmed himself on the trail's stones. When I pointed, Teddy snuffled at the leaves where it disappeared. He turned back to me, happy. I've seen him jump straight in the air when a snake surprised him, but he likes them when they're on the retreat.

A little further up the trail, I heard something bigger in the brush to my left. It was far enough away that I didn't get spooked. I kept climbing until I was looking down on a lane of sword fern among Western Red cedar, Douglas Fir, and Hemlock. It's the classic look of the forest around here. Throw in some fog, salal, and Oregon grape and you can expect to find Big Foot at any turn. Well, supposedly you could find Big Foot. I love when I'm in forest like this. Then, I heard the creature moving through the brush again. I kept trying to look where I'd last heard the noise. Then, I realized that I should be looking where Teddy was looking.

And there she was, a mama bear with two cubs. I walked up the trail a bit to see if I could get a better view. Teddy stayed at my side, looking at me to see if I'd send him to chase. No. There would be no chase for these three. Suddenly, I saw the mama bear turn and look right at me. There was a question in her eyes. Something changed in the way I was breathing.

"I see you there," I said in a quiet voice. "I see you have two babies. They're beautiful and I'm not going to bother them."

Then her small cub, which had climbed part way up a tree, came scrambling down and tumbled at her feet. The other cub walked ahead of her as she stood with her back to me but her face turned squarely toward me. Twins.

"You have a beautiful family," I said, keeping up my chatter. "I'm going to walk back down this trail here and I'll keep making noise so you can tell exactly where I am, okay?"

Then, as she was still looking, I turned and walked down the trail, telling Teddy to stay close. When I ran out of things to say, I sang. The only songs that came to mind were Christmas songs. Mike has been singing Christmas songs around the house lately and they're in my head. To the tune of 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas,' I sang,

"I'm walking down the trail now, I'm walking along the trail now, I'm walking along the trail now, and I'll leave you alone."

I made up verses until we were around the curve and across the bridge where the trail double-backed and I was afraid I might cross paths with her again. To tell you the truth, I switched songs and kept up a quiet babble of them until I was nearly back to the paved trail, well away from where I had left her.

I felt hushed for a moment, as if I had been allowed into something special. I had been. I was grateful to finally see a bear here after living here for twenty-four years. Just then, Teddy pounced at the edge of the trail. I never saw what it was, though he snuffled at it under his feet for a minute or so. A mouse? A shrew? Maybe another garter snake? I didn't get to see, but I saw the struggle under the leaves. I walked down the trail, a sign to Teddy to let the poor thing be.

Then an owl hooted from the trees. Oh, I don't know what kind of owl. It was the classic 'who, who-who' sound. I knew that animals were more active at dusk, but this was more than I had ever seen on this trail. Oh, I'd had people tell me they'd seen a bear on the trail or to watch out for coyote or the elk herd running at dusk.

Then, when Teddy and I got back to the car, a deer was standing within a dozen yards, looking like a statue. It took Teddy a minute to even see her. As if we were no problem at all, she walked casually across the road while I finally had the presence of mind to snap some pictures.

I put Teddy into the back seat, took off my day pack, and sat sideways in the driver's seat with the door open, thinking about everything I'd seen and heard. As I lifted my feet to close the door, I looked up and saw a rabbit munching grass a few feet away.

There was some kind of magic in the air tonight and Teddy and I have been allowed to witness it. I tell you, it made me feel like Snow White for a minute.

Thank you for listening, jb

Monday, August 11, 2014

Heavy Breathing

Teddy and I walked seven and a half miles today. I'll tell you that I had a reason that I picked the absolute hottest day of the year. The Weather Channel says it's ninety-nine degrees out. I have been checking The Weather Channel every day, hoping for a break in this weather. Tomorrow, it says, we will get a break on our weather, fifty percent chance of rain. I just might dance in the rain tomorrow.

Last night, Mike said he has an appointment with his cardiac specialist to ask if he's ready for a fifty mile backpacking trip next week. Oh, I'll admit to you that this trip will be worrying me. I was trying not to say anything. The Boy Scout troop is hiking for six days in the Olympics, far from help, exerting themselves, carrying heavy packs in spite of a serious attempt to pack light. It turns out that it's worrying Mike a bit too which is why he scheduled an appointment with his doctor. Last night, Mike began to go over some of his worrying symptoms.

"Symptoms? What symptoms?" I asked.

"Small pains now and then," he said, "and an onset of sweating last Tuesday afternoon?

My breath went shallow. I tried to stay calm.

"You didn't say anything about symptoms," I said. Was my voice higher than normal? I took a deep breath, tried to count to eight as I breathed out. In. Count. Out. Count.

"I just want to make sure he thinks I'm ready. The last time I asked about the small pains, he said not to worry."

I tried to stay positive.

"How many adults are going on the trip?"

"Just two of us."

"So, if the doctor says you shouldn't go, the trip is off?"

"Pretty much."

"Could I be your backup?" I asked. Mike didn't answer. He just looked at me with his eyebrows knitted together.

It took a moment, but I realized he was trying not to hurt my feelings.  I usually only walk two or three miles when I take the dog out. I have trouble with elevation gain. And my day pack is only a fraction of the weight that a backpack would be. Besides, I tend to melt on trips when no water is involved. I could hike fifteen miles a day if I were at a lakeside or by the ocean. Mountains? Not so much.

"I could walk 8.3 miles. I could."

He nodded.

"I could carry a pack. I'd really work to pack light, but I could do it." I got going, responding to his silence as if he'd laughed at me. He hadn't.

"I mean, I know I'd be the slowest member of the group if I went, but it would be better than cancelling the entire trip, right?"

"Well?" I took that as a bit of encouragement.

"Yeah, I could load my pack tomorrow and see how far I could go. If I can walk six or seven miles a day for three or four days, then I could probably manage six days of eight."

He nodded again, but at this point, I didn't need input.

"Yeah, I could be your backup. I could."

I wasn't seeing the whole picture. I didn't want to see the whole picture.

This morning, before it got too hot, I headed out after telling Nick of my plan. I'd be gone for a few hours. I'd be back before it got too hot. I was going to hike at least seven miles. I was going for elevation gain. I was going to carry some extra stuff in my backpack.

I was about half way up the trail, walking more and more slowly and sweating profusely, when my brain finally engaged.

If the doctor didn't think that Mike should go on the trip, then something was seriously wrong and you wouldn't be able to drag me away from Mike next week. If the doctor thought something was wrong, there would be tests and I'd be right there next to him.

I was lost in my thoughts when Teddy suddenly bounded off the trail. There was a shuffling in the brush. I couldn't see what he was excited about. We were near the summit, near where you can look out over the Snoqualmie Valley in a 270 degree panoramic view. I wasn't paying much attention to Teddy.

"Get him," I said, assuming there was a deer off the path. I had heard something big moving. I saw something, too, but only in my peripheral vision. I never got a look at it, but it crashed through the brush like a deer would when chased.

Teddy headed back down the trail. I decided that I'd had enough and headed after him. At one switchback, he was on my right on the downhill side. At the next, he was on my left, up the hill from me.

Teddy came back momentarily, looking to see if I'd send him out again.

"Get him," I whispered, trying to see the animal in the brush. Nothing. I didn't see anything but moving brush and by the time I'd turn my head, it would be quiet again.

I headed back down the trail, still thinking about Mike's new symptoms. Teddy crashed through the brush and came back down to where I was on the trail again. Then, during a moment when Teddy and I both stopped panting for a moment, I heard something.

I heard a deep and raspy breathing.

I waited for Teddy to stop panting.

There it was again, not a growl, thankfully, but definitely breathing. It was the sound of other.

I went through the possibilities in my head as I looked for a stick. Not human. Definitely not human. Not elk. They would snort and stomp one foot as a warning to the herd. They would move very quietly through the brush.

Deer don't sound this way.

Cougar? I found a suitably heavy stick, hooked Teddy to his leash, and faced the source of the sound. It was up the hill from me but slightly down the trail.

Did I have time to go back up the trail and try to find another way down to my car? It would take a while. I'd have to go up through Snoqualmie Ridge and come back down through another park. I decided to plow through the way I was headed.

I sang. I raised my arms and my club. I held Teddy at my side. I backed down the trail, staring at the spot where I could still hear the breathing. Then, the breathing was behind me, further down the trail, raspy and deep.

I pretended that it could be a mistake. I might be imagining it. I might.

I wasn't. I could hear this rumble of a breath that made the hair stand up at the back of my neck and the backs of my knees tingle.

I sang Christmas songs, Jingle Bells, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, and Angels We Have Heard on High, as I walked always facing the last spot where I heard the breathing, holding my arms above my head. I looked big. I sounded big. I was big.

Teddy looked up at me as if I were kooky. Maybe I was. Maybe I wasn't. But there definitely was breathing.

After about a quarter of a mile, the hair on my neck settled down. I stopped hearing any noises, and Teddy was cool as a cucumber. I finished my hike without ever seeing anything.

It would be like that with Todd's heart too, wouldn't it?

Thank you for listening, jb

I Hope I Swim

I'm waiting for the floor guy to show up. There was some buckling between rooms and I'm hoping this guy will know how to fix it. So far, I'm not impressed. He's an hour late. I got up, got ready, and am sitting here, trying not to look out the window for him. I'm worried that he'll mess things up even more. I should relax. I should ignore the fact that he's late.

And there's the canoe. We're supposed to go canoeing this afternoon at Rattlesnake Lake. Actually, Nick and his friend Adrian are going to paddle while Adrian's mom, sister, and I sit on the shore and wait for them. It should be beautiful at the lake today and I'm hoping to get a turn at paddling too.

The problem with the canoe is that I'm not sure I can get it out of the garage and onto the truck without hurting myself. Mike keeps saying that I should let Nick bear most of the weight, that I should just guide him out with it. It's a sixty pound canoe. It's been dropped more than once. I guess it'll be okay as long as Nick knows that it can handle being dropped if it starts to go down.

Never try to catch a falling canoe.

I just need to remember how nice it'll be this afternoon once we get to the lake, how relaxed I'll be when I look out over the water, when I smell that smell. There really is a smell that you only get when you're very close to natural water. It's subtle. Maybe it's the smell of algae. Or maybe water really does have a smell. I don't know.

This is the first day in weeks that I've wanted it to be sunny and warm. There's a cloud cover now, but it's supposed to burn off and get to about 80 degrees, just warm enough for that cold water.  Oh, I'll probably swim anyway. These days, I get into cold water inch by inch the way I saw the women do when I was a kid. I used to laugh at them and tell them to just jump in, that the shock of it would be over in a minute. I was right. I was. Yet, I inch into the water now that I'm old like those women we used to camp with.

I hope I get my floor fixed. I hope I get the canoe onto the truck. I hope I paddle it around the lake. I hope I swim.

Thank you for listening, jb