Why I Walk Under a Full Moon in June

The old Navajo woman sat on a wood stool in front of her weaving loom, her hair threaded with grey and pulled back into a “tsiiyeel,” a hair knot. A heavy turquoise and silver studded chain hung from her neck. She was in her finery to meet me, a young white woman working with her missionary friends on the reservation. I watched her gnarled hands move the shuttle stick down again and again, tightly compacting each strand of wool. Before I left, she smiled and gave me one of her small woven blankets. She explained the significance of this blanket, and pointed out the loose threads at one corner to allow all the evil to escape.

I still have that little Navajo blanket and look at it occasionally, touching the geometric pattern, important symbols in Navajo myth. A friend once told me: people matter, not things. And yet, certain things do matter, sometimes a great deal.

Objects, both animate and inanimate, can have special spiritual significance to us.

We notice them or hold them in our hands, see pictures of them or hear about them, and have an emotional reaction. The world speaks to us through these symbols in a personal way. They enrich our lives or give us comfort. After my mother-in-law died, my husband planted a white rose bush in her honor. He enjoys smelling the roses and swears they have a fruity scent, a raspberry-like smell, something my nose never picks up. But his mother, Doris, loved raspberries and always grew a healthy patch of them in her garden every year.

The moon is an important symbol for me.

My birthday is this month, in June, and though I don’t believe in astrology I’m aware that my astrological sign is Cancer. As a Cancer, I’m considered a “moon child.” Coincidentally, my name, Diana, also has something to do with the moon. I’ve never really liked the name Diana. It has too many syllables, so family and friends shorten it to “Dee” which makes me sound like a gum-smacking truck stop waitress. I’ve tried to regain some dignity by telling people the name Diana is actually the Roman translation for the ancient Greek goddess, Artemus. And, surprise, surprise—Artemus happens to be the goddess of the moon. Though lots of people like seeing a beautiful full moon, I make it a point every June to take a night stroll when the moon is full. As I walk I watch my moon shadow and listen for any moon eaters about, the deer that like to browse in bushes and trees nearby.

For many northwestern and Alaskan Indian tribes, deer are emblematic.

They’re considered totem animals, signifying direction and guidance because deer see so well even in the dark. I’m reminded of The Deer Hunter, one of the first movies produced about Viet Nam after the war. I’ll never forget the scene where Viet Nam vet, Michael, makes the difficult decision to go back and search for his best friend, Nick, who’s gone missing in Viet Nam. When Michael makes up his mind, he’s hunting in the Allegheny Mountains. He finally corners a beautiful stag, shoots, and misses the deer. Then he drops his rifle and yells to the open skies, “Okay…okay!” It was as if the deer, with its penetrating stare, reminded Michael of his obligation to find Nick.

Above my kitchen sink, on the window shelf I have a smooth, polished stone the size of the palm of my hand. My friend Gail gave me that stone when my husband and son were both about to undergo surgery, my son donating one of his kidneys to his father. Gail told me it was a “worry” stone, and that I should rub it whenever I was afraid or anxious. The stone seemed like a pretty rock to me so I sat it on the window ledge. Then one morning I held the stone up while I dusted underneath it. It was warm from sitting in the sun and pleasant to hold. I rubbed my thumb over the top of it…and felt soothed.

 

Image credit:  All images by Diana Hooley

 

How to Deal With Vacation Disasters

I was driving to the coast when I hurt my back. If you’re of a certain age, and you sit in a car seat long enough, you can end up with a back problem. “Great,” I thought, “a week of crab-walking the beach.”

My back going out was the bad news, but there was some good news too.

I was able to quickly locate a grocery store and buy a bottle of Ibuprofen and a bag of frozen peas. I popped two Ibuprofen in my mouth with a big gulp of water, and I placed the cold peas behind my lower back in the driver’s seat. Soon, I was on the road again and feeling better.

I love going to the ocean—as only someone who lives inland can. It’s always a shock to drive over that last coastal hill and see the broad, blue Pacific stretching before me, a massive infinity pool, no end in sight. I rolled the car window down to smell the humid air and hear the waves crashing against the shore. A line from a nineteen-oh-two poem by John Masefield came to mind: “I must go down to the sea again…”

My vacation rental was a cottage on a crested hill up at least two flights of stairs from the parking lot. With my back still stiff and sore, the wisest course was to take several trips loading my luggage up. Fortunately, there was a hand rail. I took a few steps at a time carrying my first load, occasionally rubbing my aching back against the railing like a cat does its owner’s leg. When I finally got to the cottage stoop I plopped my bag down, and with my camera strap hanging off one shoulder, entered the key code to unlock the door. I tried the code several times, but the door wouldn’t budge. Below me I heard someone coming up the stairs.

“Hello!” he called. “Are you the renter?”

“Yes!” I said, “I can’t seem to get this door unlocked. Can you help me?”

“I know it’s a little tricky,” the man said as he came up beside me on the stoop. He demonstrated how to double-tap the code in to get the door open. “Do you want to try tapping the code again while I’m standing here to make sure you get it right?”

He seemed very thoughtful, though a bit scruffy-looking. His long hair was braided down his back and his face had several piercings. Apparently, he was part of the cleaning staff. He was back to take pictures of their cleaning job to send to the rental agency.

I carried my big suitcase up last. I pulled and dragged it over the lip of each step. The cleaner/photographer came out of the house when he saw me struggling and said, “Oh jeez! Stop!  You’re going to hurt yourself. Let me help you carry your suitcase.”

“Thank you!” I gasped. “I’m not usually such a cripple, but I hurt my back on the way here. I didn’t realize my rental would be up two flights of stairs.”

“Yes, people want an ocean view so these hills are covered with rental houses. You might want to take an Advil for your back. I know when my back goes out that’s what I do.”

I nodded as the photographer disappeared into the kitchen to take one last photo. Once I heard him leave out the back door, I opened a couple of windows facing the ocean, and then fell on the sofa, exhausted. I stared dazedly at my pile of belongings on the floor in the middle of the room. My eye lids grew heavy, and I was on the verge of napping when it occurred to me something was missing. I got up from the couch and began rifling through the luggage pile.

It was my camera! I carried my camera up the stairs on my first trip. It was gone!

I paused a moment as realization and disappointment washed over me. The nice photographer stole my camera. Of course he did. That was the bad news. I stood up slowly, careful with my bad back, and felt like crying. Then, an ocean breeze blew through the window, and I heard the distinctive cry of sea gulls. There was still some good news. The sea was calling… I could go down to the sea.

 

All photos:  Diana Hooley

Where Do You Go To Grieve?

Where do you go to grieve?  As Easter approaches I’m reminded of the story of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, how he prayed just before his arrest and execution.  The garden was actually an olive orchard, probably with some fresh water source, a spring or well, nearby. No doubt it was private and quiet enough for praying.

Historically, people have often went to natural spaces like gardens and grottos to find comfort in times of suffering.

In 1965 I was just a young girl when my brother died in a swimming pool accident. The place I went to grieve was a large spreading oak tree in a field near my house. I remember climbing on a branch and crying.  After a while I calmed down and sang to myself a Beatle song I liked:  “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…”

Fifty-five years later, this past fall, I lost another brother, this time to cancer.  It was not as sudden nor perhaps as tragic since Matt had the opportunity to live a full life.  Still, I had to get away by myself to grieve, somewhere outside in the open air, for death felt like a dark, stuffy crypt.  In southern Idaho there aren’t any garden oases like Gethsemane, and oak trees don’t grow very well in the desert. There is however, vast sagebrush plains and steep rocky canyons carved by the ever-flowing Snake River.

I struck out on a walk one late fall day shortly after Matt’s death.

Wiping tears away with my shirt sleeve, I was startled when a jackrabbit jumped out from behind some bitterbrush. My mind was so preoccupied with death, the first thought I had was my husband’s story about killing jackrabbits in the desert during an infestation. As I watched the rabbit race over a hill, I noticed the sagebrush was almost done flowering. I ambled over to a large sage and swept my hand over its crown.  Fine, yellow pollen dusted my palm.

I hadn’t planned to climb to the top of the canyon, but that’s what I did. I knew this trail well and had traveled it many times over the years.  It was hard climbing, stepping over sharp rocks and around animal droppings, mostly coyote or mule deer. It wasn’t long before I found myself panting and sweating. The red-twigged Russian thistle, a noxious weed non-native to Idaho, kept grabbing at my pant legs. Up ahead I could see my resting spot. It was a basalt outcropping about half way on the canyon wall, flat-surfaced and good for standing and taking in the river view below.

One time several years ago I stood on this basalt ledge and happened to glance down at my boot. There, half buried in the dirt, was a black sliver of obsidian. I took the toe of my boot and pried under it enough to see the sliver’s shape. How surprised I was to find a perfectly carved Indian arrow head, presumably used to hunt birds. It was a nice memory and the view on the basalt ledge that day did not disappoint:  beautiful as always.

Wiser people than I have considered this paradox we call life: blissful moments even in the darkest of times.

As I turned to head back down the trail, I felt noticeably better.  But I had one more significant discovery that fall day: I found a dried up snake skin just off my path.  Snakes can shed their skin more than once during a season.  I picked up the snake casing and held it in my hand thinking about the last time I saw Matt.  He was lying still on a hospital bed and I knew he’d finally slipped this mortal coil.  Like the women standing before Christ’s empty tomb, I realized, he was gone.

 

Image Credit: Oak Tree    Image Credit:  Diana Hooley photo/Snake River Canyon   Image Credit:  Diana Hooley photo/snake skin

Poetry and Electing an Honest Man

I bent over the worksheet on my desk and followed the outline of the leaf with an orange crayon, and the acorn with a brown one.  Then I filled in the body of the leaf and acorn, lightly stroking the crayon back and forth. I remember how I admired my artwork in third grade.  Below my colored oak tree was printed a poem, the last two lines I still remember: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”  I thought about that poem this morning marveling at the colorful ash tree in my front yard turning with autumn. These days pop culture has little use for poetry, but a century or two ago poetry was all the rage.  For me, certain poems are so unforgettable they’ve come to define each step of my life.

Most people are familiar with Robert Frost’s poetry and particularly his most famous, “The Road Not Taken.”  When I was in high school I won second place at the Indiana State Forensic competition reciting this poem.  I remember slowing the final lines down for dramatic effect:  “And I?  I took the road less traveled by—and that has made all the difference.”  The desire of my youth was encompassed in that line.  At seventeen I longed to be unique and make my own mark in the world in my own way.  Now, at the other end of the life cycle, “Birches,” another Frost poem, rings more true.  Frost writes how as an adult he misses his carefree youth:

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood…”

In college I became a cynic and lost all faith in God.  It was the Viet Nam era and over 58,000 young men and women were fated to die. In 1972 my first grade crush, Dennis Collins, would become a paraplegic fighting in that war.  The banality of weekly death counts numbed me.  I eventually turned to art to reignite my passion for life and living, and joined the college drama program.  I directed my fellow actors in a short performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”  I asked the players to paint their faces white and wear black turtleneck tops and pants as they took turns reciting: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

When I was newly married a relative of mine, someone I cared for very much, “came out” and told me she was gay.  I remember castigating her because I felt this was a lifestyle choice, and she didn’t understand what she was getting into.  To support my argument I referred to the memoir of poet May Sarton, and the struggles she experienced as a lesbian.  It took a few generations before my thinking, and the thinking of the culture at large, shifted. This attitude change was expressed well in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to walk on your knees a hundred miles through the desert repenting…

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Eventually I raised my family and began a mid-life career teaching high school English.  I tried all kinds of imaginative ways to make poetry more palatable to my students: a poetry unit using rock music; lessons on dating and romantic poetry; an awards ceremony for the most funny or creative poetry my students could find or create.  Some years I began the class discussion on poetry with Billy Collins’ clever, “Introduction to Poetry”:  “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…but all they want to do is to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it…”

When I finally retired from education, I had more time and became more civic-minded and politically active. Again poetry encapsulated in just a few stirring words my worst fears and best hopes.  Poet William Butler Yeats wrote with such profound insight, several lines of his poem, “The Second Coming,” have been used for numerous book titles:  “…Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…”

Just this past week I glanced at British poet, Sheenagh Pugh’s, fall poem:

“Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse. Some years Muscadel (grapes) face down frost…

A people sometimes will step back from war; elect an honest man; decide they care…”

As time marches inexorably on, I’m beginning to mourn the loss of friends and family members. Soon it will be my turn, and the thought of leaving this life is fearsome indeed. I find it oddly comforting to consider all the great people who’ve gone on before, Shakespeare for example.  I carry the great poesy’s words close to my heart at this age, and it seems a fitting way to end this meditation on my life’s poetry:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold when yellow leaves…do hang upon the boughs…

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong—to love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”

 

 

Image Credit: Diana Hooley    Image Credit:  May Sarton 

Not Everyone Wants to Hear an Exercise Evangelist

When I was in college I remember putting on a pair of cut-off pants and sneakers and trying to jog four blocks in the Park View residential area near campus. I weighed much less than I do now, and though my heart was younger and stronger, I was completely exhausted, sweating profusely by the time I finished my jog. The next day my leg muscles hurt so much I could barely walk up the hill from my dorm room to class. I was convinced then, that a lifetime of exercise was not in my future.

The only reason I’d attempted a run that day was to lose weight and a four-block jog did nothing to the numbers on my bathroom scale.

Fast forward forty-seven years, an aging body and the beginnings of arthritis, and now I’m an exercise evangelist.  Movement, I told my 87-year-old mother, is key. Mom grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s when people believed preserving energy was more important than expending it.

“Back then we didn’t have to exercise.  We worked!” mom told me. “My mother stood over a hot iron and ironed clothes for hours.  Dad came home tired every day from working in the Dupont Powder plant.”

She almost sneered comparing modern-day notions of physical activity with how hard people labored when she was a girl.

I was a little frustrated because mom has some heart problems, and yet she enjoys sitting in her grey recliner watching the neighbor kids play outside her big picture window. When I went for my yearly physical, I complained to my doctor about mom’s sedentary habit.

“Oh,” the doctor told me matter-of-factly, “lots of older people like to sit in their chair much of the day. Their energy levels are low, and they’re often worried about falling. Sometimes it hurts to move. I understand why they feel this way. Find some ‘exercises-for-seniors’ videos for your mom. That might help.”

I made my doctor laugh when I recounted what a farmer friend told me once about movement and cattle. The farmer said if cows don’t stand up and move around, they’ll “go down and stay down.” He said it’s important to get new-born calves up and moving, looking for their mother’s milk.  And, if a cow is injured or sick, she’ll often do better if you can get her on her feet and foraging, as opposed to laying in the barn stall.

Mom is taking drugs to combat her heart problems, but I wanted her to read an article with a compelling title:

“Closest Thing to A Wonder Drug?  Try Exercise!” (New York Times, 6/20/2016).

She batted away my outstretched hand when I offered my cell phone to her.  I thought she might want to scroll down and read the article online. I knew I was being pushy, but I couldn’t help myself.  I cared about her.

Elderly woman in glasses thoughtfully looking out the window.

“Why don’t you just tell me the gist of it?” she kindly suggested.

“It says,” I gazed down at my cell phone, “‘…of all the things we as physicians can recommend for health, few provide as much benefit as physical activity.’ And then here it says that exercise is the ‘miracle cure.’  It helps your heart, your arthritis, depression, diabetes, and other diseases. It says to realize a benefit you only need to exercise just 30 minutes—on weekdays. That means weekends are off!”

I looked up excitedly from my cell phone to gauge mom’s reaction, only to find her eye lids drooping, ready for her nap. I was reminded then the many times she’d tried to school me: “You just don’t know what it feels like to be this old,” or “When you get my age you’ll think differently.”

The clock ticked quietly in the kitchen, and I waited a moment before I pocketed my cell phone and left. I lightly patted my mom’s hand, “Hey, I need to go. I’ll give you a call this weekend and see how you’re doing.”

As I gently clicked the front door shut behind me, I sighed thinking how ironic life is.  I didn’t like exercising when I was a young college co-ed, and now my old mother feels the same way. The burden of movement is life-long.

 

Image credit:  Jogger     Image credit:  Old woman looking out a window

 

Reality TV Has the Answers

I am not a voyeur.  Yet, when Covid struck and channel surfing seemed more likely than ocean surfing, I clicked the remote until I came upon a couple of reality TV shows that hooked me.  My 600-Pound Life and Naked and Afraid are both full of lurid, ooh-ah moments designed to keep the TV viewers tuned in.

What can I say?  Last summer at this time I was reading a prize-winning book about brain chemistry, and this summer I’m into fat and naked people.

(Please note I didn’t combine those adjectives:  Six Hundred Pounds, Naked, and Afraid is a TV show still searching for an audience.)

These TV shows may offend more discerning tastes, but I have to say, I’ve learned a few things about human behavior watching them.  For example, people will eat anything, ANYTHING, when they are hungry.  A dieting, obese person will claw through the garbage, past coffee grounds and slimy peach pits, to get to the bag of potato chips they nobly threw away the day before.  Naked people may be afraid of the panther in the jungle, but they’re fearless about eating stinky skunk meat.  I’ve also learned will power is not necessarily won’t power, as in I won’t abandon this challenge.  People will “tap out” of the jungle and put on a pair of underwear if the chiggers get bad enough.  Obese people will go back to fried mayonnaise sandwiches if their only other option is lettuce (I don’t blame them).

A fascinating lesson from these shows has to do with resilience, the very trait needed to get through tough times.  I’ve thought about this lesson a lot lately with our pandemic, job losses, and social unrest.  How can we still be okay when life gets difficult?  How do some people on Naked and Afraid survive 21 days without food, water, or shelter being provided?  How is the 600-pound woman able to withstand a year of only 1200 calories-a-day, or less?  They somehow find the resilience they need to meet their challenge.

From the comfort of my couch I cheer them on, thankful I’m not in their situation—but wait, I AM in their situation.

We all live with some kind of struggle.  It may not be worthy of a reality TV program, but we all have some kind of problem we have to deal with, often on a daily basis.

One thing I try to keep in mind about reality TV is how orchestrated these shows are. There’s a certain amount of character and plot manipulation going on (remember that 1998 movie, The Truman Show?)  Yet, there’s also obvious instances of genuine human suffering on reality TV.  I’ve noticed successful show participants think and act more flexibly.  They demonstrate their resilience by making things better, even in the worst of circumstances. The couple abandoned in the wilds of Indonesia built a cozy hut and figured out how to turn a piece of bamboo into a water filter. The 600-pound man found a way to make his meals more appetizing without the extra calories.  He added colorful chopped vegetables and began experimenting with fresh fruit. They made their hardship less hard.

I thought about reality TV when I visited an old friend of mine who’s suffering from a re-occurrence of her cancer.  I’d been meaning to visit her, to see how she was doing, but couldn’t find a good time.  Finally, one day when I was running errands I stopped by her house.  I felt bad about not calling ahead and hoped, considering her recent bad news, she’d feel like talking with me.  I rang the doorbell and when no one answered, peeked into her back yard.  I’m not sure what I expected to find, but I didn’t anticipate my friend smiling and sitting with her husband in lawn chairs.  They were drinking a glass of wine and looking at the lovely white phlox blooming in her flower bed.  In the background I heard the sweet strains of violin music coming from speakers mounted above the patio.

My friend may only weigh 120 pounds, and she would never think of leaving her home without her clothes on, but she does have something in common with the people on reality TV:  she’s knows how to be resilient in a challenging time.

 

 

Image Credit:  Naked and Afraid    Image Credit:  photo by Diana Hooley

Image Credit:  Resilience

Science Doesn’t Care About Your Feelings

Who was my grandfather?

It was a family mystery I attempted to solve several years ago when I visited ninety-five year old Uncle Clay.  Clay was the only one left alive who could tell me if it was true, that my dad’s adopted father, Charlie Holland, was in fact my true, genetic grandfather.

“Hey girl?” Uncle Clay whipped his head this way and that, trying to use the pigeon-holed vision he had in his one remaining eye to see me.  I sat about two feet in front of him.

“I’m here,” I reached out and touched the loose skin on his bony hand.  “So Grandpa Holland had an affair while he was married to grandma, and then adopted the child from that affair, right?  Nobody knew dad was Grandpa Holland’s real son, but he is isn’t he?”

“Charlie …” Uncle Clay began then stared blankly into space for a moment, “okay…sure, sure.  It’s what you say.”

He might have been mostly deaf and certainly blind, but Clay’s acknowledgement of the truth of this story was good enough for me.  I wanted the riddle solved.  I wanted to believe Charlie Holland, the grandfather I’d known all of my life, was also my real grandfather in every sense of the word.

Ancestry-dot-com had not even entered the scene when I visited Uncle Clay back in 1998.  It would be some time before I, like 26 million other people (according to CNBC), used consumer DNA tests to find information on my heritage.  With a 99.9 accuracy rate, DNA testing is not wishful thinking, it is science and as such, these tests are not swayed by the emotional needs of their customers.   So it was with great disappointment that I eventually discovered I have Scotland and Ireland in me, but no Holland—either the country or the surname.  Uncle Clay had fudged the truth.  Of course, I set him up and lead him to this lie.

I pushed my frail, great-uncle (by adoption) until he told me what I wanted to hear.

After I found out about my ancestry through DNA analysis, I called an old friend of mine who I don’t see very often, just to talk and catch up.  He confessed how disappointed he was with DNA testing too.

“I know I’m a quarter Cree Indian—I don’t care what their test says,” my friend was adamant.

He and I both grew up in the 60’s when claiming Native American ancestry was counter-culture and cool.  Paul Revere and the Raiders sang songs with lyrics like, “Cherokee nation, Cherokee tribe, so proud to live, so proud to die…”  A movie came out in 1971, Billy Jack, starring a handsome lead actor who played a part-Indian, Viet Nam vet with some serious butt-kicking skills.  Obviously, my friend had been taken in by these romanticized images of being a half-breed.

“But your DNA tests show your ancestors were from Europe.  Surely you’re not going to argue with the science?”

But he could argue, and he did. “I’m not too big on science anymore,” he said as easily as disclosing he didn’t like broccoli.

I was dismayed and surprised by this comment.  If he didn’t trust or believe in science anymore, why didn’t he get rid of his cell phone, computer, and car?  Conveniences like these were given to him by science.  My friend had become very religious though.  He told me he preferred to trust his feelings rather than some DNA laboratory.

This summer I thought about that long-ago phone conversation when I read a New York Times op-ed entitled:  “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science is Crippling our Coronavirus Response.” Some lies are harmless and maybe even make us feel better:  Grandpa Holland is, and always will be, my grandfather.  Other stories we tell ourselves though, can be absolutely deadly.

 

Image Credit:  Grandpa Charlie Holland        Image Credit:  Ancestry Dot Com       Image Credit:  Billy Jack

A Way to Cope, a Way to Rest

People find all kinds of ways to cope during difficult times. The plague of coronavirus coupled with the anger and divisiveness that’s rocking our nation currently, has sent many people to their therapists seeking help.  My daughter, who’s a mental health counselor, says her online client load has tripled.

I’ve benefited at different times in my life from therapy, but one of my mainstays for good mental health, something that is both free and easily accessible, has been meditational prayer.

I learned to pray going to church as a young girl when God was a magical, white-bearded being that looked and acted a lot like Santa Claus.  My every wish was his to grant.  If I just prayed hard enough and long enough, always humbly on my knees, I would be blessed with getting what I wanted.

As I grew up and changed, so did my prayers.  They became less about God doing my will, and more about me finding answers within myself.  And, in order to gain this understanding I had to inventory my thoughts and feelings in an honest, nonjudgmental way.  I talked to the “god within me” to help sort out my life—and found in the process not only comfort, but clarity.

For example, when I first married a desert farmer, I had a bad case of buyer’s remorse.  It wasn’t that I didn’t love my new husband, I just missed my home back East, the spreading oak trees and grassy lawns, the friends and neighbors I’d known growing up in a small town.

One time I felt so trapped and isolated living in a trailer in the neck of a canyon, I threw open the trailer door in a rage, and started walking.

I wasn’t watching where I was going, I just stomped out into the sagebrush, tears of frustration rolling down my cheeks. I ranted and swore at God about how I’d become this lonely farm wife.  Love or lust had kidnapped my life plans.  I lamented a languishing college degree and lost career.  I didn’t like living on a farm.  I didn’t want to plant a vegetable garden or sew curtains.  I just wanted some television reception, which seemed near impossible, a shaky antennae the only conduit for a few radio waves that managed to find their way to us.

When I was done praying, I felt better. I stood there a moment staring at the canyon wall in front of me, my eyelashes still moist from crying, and noticed some kind of trail going up the side. From a distance it looked like a path animals might use, maybe the deer I spotted out the window this morning, or the coyotes I heard baying at night.  Suddenly, I wanted to follow this trail, just to see where it led.

When I got to the top of the canyon wall I was sweaty and hot from climbing, but the view of peaceful farm fields along the Snake River was magnificent.  I experienced an incredible sense of calm, and knew then that everything would be okay.

Dr. David Rosmarin from the Harvard Medical School discussed prayer and praying in The Wall Street Journal recently.  He said research shows prayer calms the central nervous system and the “fight or flight” instinct. Prayer, much like meditation, rests our brains because it turns off our anxiety switch, and turns on our ability to self-reflect.  Praying is a time when we can be thoughtful, rather than reactive, about our life.

I’m a very relaxed pray-er.  So much so that I’ve had to be conscious about people nearby who might think I’m a little crazy, muttering to myself.  Mostly though, I pray alone, walking outdoors where the natural world almost always puts me in a spiritual space. Praying is especially doable during the Covid-19 pandemic. You may be six feet apart from everybody else, but when you pray, you get very close to yourself.

 

Image credit:  Coronavirus Prayer    Image credit:  Trailer House    Image credit:  From the top of the Canyon by Diana Hooley

I’ll Cry Tomorrow…

In the midst of a pandemic I find myself late afternoon channel surfing and old movies always catch my eye.  Today I watched the 1955 biopic, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, about the Broadway star Lillian Roth and her descent into alcoholism.  Roth eventually found her path to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous.  My husband thought the movie and its formulaic ending dated and archaic, but I was fascinated.  I realized how much attitudes about alcoholism have changed since 1955.

Today, alcoholism is classified as a disease, and a certain segment of alcoholics prefer to manage their addiction as opposed to fully abstain.  Sixty years ago though, alcoholism was viewed as a slippery slope to Hell, a shame-filled tragedy.

Watching I’ll Cry Tomorrow brought to my mind an encounter I had with a friend of a friend, a man who’d been to rehab for alcoholism and met regularly with his AA group.  I saw this man not too long ago at a gathering where the alcohol flowed.  I left the party early and was surprised to run into my friend’s friend in the parking lot.  He was just standing there with his hands in his pockets looking out toward the lowering sun.

“Hey,” I greeted him as I passed by on my way to the car, “That was some party, wasn’t it?”

“Yep,” he nodded, noncommittally.

I stopped and looked back at him.  There was something about the tone of his voice.  I added, “But I’m not a drinker—so it was past time for me to leave.”  I nodded toward the horizon, “Nice sunset though.”

As I drove away I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw my friend’s friend open his car door.

Four years ago when my doctor mentioned the adverse effects of alcohol on aging internal organs, and that it was a known suspect in breast cancer, I decided to quit drinking.  It wasn’t that hard for me, but I did miss having a glass or two of wine when I ate out at restaurants.  I don’t really understand how difficult it is for an alcoholic to give up alcohol.  But I do know a little about being human and having limitations.  Like most people, I’ve had personal situations in my life where acknowledgement and acceptance were the greatest things I could do.

That was probably the most powerful part of I’ll Cry Tomorrow for me.  I choked up when Lillian Roth finally went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to get the help she so desperately needed.   She stood courageously before a group of men wearing boxy 1950’s suits and women in pencil skirts, and said, “My name is Lillian Roth and I’m an alcoholic.”

My husband shook his head when he heard this. “She shouldn’t have to shame herself like that,” he said.

In a way, he was right.  I taught educational psychology at a local university and I warned my students how damaging labels and labeling were.  Still, for adults, confession can be good for the soul.  It can be cathartic: a letting go, in order to begin anew.

In 2015 an Atlantic Monthly article criticized AA and their 12-step program, saying the program had no scientific basis.  The article, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous” said that other more modern treatments like therapy and drugs worked better. Interestingly, five years later, this past spring of 2020, the Stanford School of Medicine finally remedied the absence of research behind AA.  The Stanford article entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous Most Effective Path to Alcohol Abstinence” stated:

After evaluating 35 studies—involving the work of 145 scientists and the outcomes of 10,080 participants…AA was nearly always found to be more effective than psychotherapy in achieving abstinence.  In addition, most studies showed that AA participation lowered health care costs.”

For the many people that have been helped by AA, this is probably not news.  We are all individuals with our own unique paths.  Sometimes though, the old ways, the solutions used by our grandparents in the 1940’s and 50’s, still have merit.

 

Image credit: I’ll Cry Tomorrow           Image credit: Sober

Remember the Life You Led in the 1990’s?

One of my cherished morning rituals, when I couldn’t get my kids out of bed to go to school, was to blast Guns N’ Rose’s “Welcome to the Jungle” throughout the house. I thought of that ritual this morning as I poured a cup a black coffee and sat quietly in the big leather chair to watch the sun rise.  My solitude was only disturbed by the sound of wrens and robins waking up on the pear tree outside.  It was a thoughtful morning, the kind I like now that I’m older, so I took a sip of coffee and picked up a book sitting next to my cup.  I was struck by the first sentence I read: “There are many lifetimes, in a lifetime.”

Was this some sort of pitch for reincarnation, I wondered?  Then I reread the sentence and glanced up to watch the sun’s rays inch over the canyon wall.  Because I’d been thinking about my children, I considered that lifetime, the one I’d led in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  I was rushed and harried, always managing meals, clothing, appointments, and celebrations.  But I was young.  I had thick dark hair and firm, line-less skin.

I could do push-ups, and climb mountains, and eat a plate of spicy spaghetti without a hint of acid indigestion.

That lifetime, the 1990’s, was truly another lifetime.  The internet had not been invented yet so we spent time on telephones, looking up information in encyclopedias, and watching VHS videotapes we rented from Blockbuster Video.  We didn’t just look different back then, we were different, even at the cellular level.  According to Stanford University, the human body replaces itself with new cells every seven to ten years.

More importantly, we were not the same people emotionally and intellectually in that 1990 lifetime. Which is a good thing, considering some of the misses (mis-takes, mis-haps, and mis-steps) I made back then.  Like that time I drank too much at a faculty Christmas party.  I lost my balance and tossed a plate of chicken wings down the front of some glittery dress next to me.  I don’t like loud parties anymore, and I care even less about drinking too much.

Sometimes we forget that though our past belongs to us, we do not belong to our past.  We live many lifetimes in a lifetime.  That was then, this is now.  We do not have to be defined by our crazy youth, frustrated parenthood, or career-driven mid-life. Those were all our identities at one time, but I live now, in this space—and it’s different.

In fact, if we don’t move on to the next lifetime, we’ll inevitably run into trouble.

For example, a friend of mine was traveling through Kalispell, Montana with her husband when she decided to look up an old boyfriend who lived there.  She said it’d been nearly twenty years since she’d last seen this fellow.  They decided to have lunch together at a downtown restaurant, my friend and her husband, and her old beau and his newly pregnant wife.  She said it was so great to see her ex.  She laughed and talked to him in that old, familiar way.  She looked at her former boyfriend and said, “Oh, you were always such a renegade!”  Then suddenly the boyfriend moved closer to his wife and picked up her hand to hold it. “Am I a renegade honey?” he asked his wife.  My friend said she felt so embarrassed.  She’d temporarily lost herself in another lifetime when she’d had a relationship with this man.

I saw a movie in about 1990, a videotape I must have rented from Blockbuster.  The Mission starred that handsome young actor Robert De Niro.  De Niro played a conquistador in the 1600’s who’d killed his brother in a jealous rage.  Broken with shame and regret, De Niro’s conquistador turned to the church for help. He made a harrowing trek up the face of a cliff to a church mission at the top.  His journey up the cliff was made infinitely more dangerous because the conquistador insisted on carrying his armor, and the sword he killed his brother with, on his back.  When he finally clawed his way over the rim of the precipice, a priest came and cut away his heavy back pack.

I’ll never forget that scene, De Niro as the conquistador, laughing into the sky, free finally from the bonds of his past.  It’s a lesson for all of us.  We are fortunate to live many lifetimes in a lifetime.

 

 

 

Image Credit:  1990 Diana Hooley     Image Credit:  Women Rowing North by Mary Pipher     Image Credit:  The Mission