Thursday, August 29, 2019

What happened today: was it ants or the moon?

Sparks Marina
A friend on Facebook posted that the coming new moon will generate a lot of “positivity.” So, maybe it was new moon energy, but something unusual happened today. 
First of all, I did something out of the ordinary for me: I approached a stranger and asked her a personal question. I hesitated twice, thinking that what I wanted to ask her might be imposing or even rude, but when she walked right by me on her way away from the coffee shop and the moment was slipping away, I finally stood and said, “Excuse me."

Let me back up. When I moved to high-desert Reno, I heard there was a “marina” here, so, eventually, I went looking for it. What I found was a beautiful park with a large pond and a great walk. There were a couple of small docks for non-motorized boats in front of a luxury apartment complex that apparently earned the area its title as a “marina.”

This tree-lined park buzzed with ground squirrels zipping past walkers and a few morning fishermen. Only a few years before, it had been a Toxic Superfund Site, a gravel pit that had been contaminated by a massive spill of a nearby fuel-tank farm. After the clean-up and the flood of 1997, it was discovered that it was a natural aquifer and maintaining its desired 100-feet deep level requires pumping out a million gallons of water daily into the Truckee River. 
There is a charming coffee shop by the marina and I had resolved to spend some time there. Today my plans changed twice before I wound up there and settled in with an iced-latte and my notebook. I briefly noticed a woman across from me working on a Mac laptop, but I was focused on a new project. 

The Maybe Stage

The new project has been niggling around in my mind for quite some time. It calls to me, and at the same time it overwhelms me. It seems like a project someone else should do … someone with more credentials and experience. So, I’ve been in the “maybe stage.” Maybe I should do it. Maybe it would be fun, or even useful. Maybe it’s too big or too much work. Maybe I don’t know how to put it together. Maybe ... maybe ... maybe.

That’s where I was, sitting at an outside table making notes on all these maybes when I noticed the woman again. She looked interesting and like she might be in the right age range. The new project is about women in “this stage of life,”  what they're learning, how they're coping with the challenges of this stage, and how they find meaning and purpose. I thought briefly about introducing myself, but it was easier to just stay in my own head.

Then, she got up, gathered her stuff, and walked over to the trash can. She walked easily and gracefully, and it took a moment to notice that she had an amputated foot. That increased my interest; obviously, she had faced a challenge and could have wisdom to share. But, she might also resent an intrusion on her privacy. When she went inside, my mind was churning … should I approach her or would it be rude? I finally got up and went inside, determined to introduce myself; but she was talking to the counter person, so I went back outside and sat down. It wasn’t the right time.

A few minutes later, she came out and was walking right by me. I could sit and watch the moment evaporate or I could do something. I had an excuse, many excuses … I didn’t know her, I didn’t even know if she was old enough, or if she would be interested, or if she would think it rude of me to approach her because of a physical handicap.

Then, without further thought, I stood up and said, “Excuse me … I hope I’m not being rude, but I’m working on a research/book project and wondered if I could ask you a question?”

“She smiled and replied, 
“That’s interesting, I’m working on a research project, too.”

We laughed and wound up sitting for another half hour talking about our projects. She interviewed me for hers and agreed to be part of mine. We shared some information and resources and decided to get together again.

During these minutes, I found myself tearing up as I felt touched by the Universe, gifted with encouragement and the sense that this new project had just left the “maybe stage.”

What about the ants?

Oh, yes ... the ants! I’ve recently begun to think change is the work of ants.   

Think of any major moment in your life and try to find its start … getting married, having a baby, getting hired for your dream job, or even breaking up with your first love. You may remember when it happened, or even when you decided that it should happen, however, if you follow the trail back to the true beginning, to the first moment it became a possibility, it often starts with an ant. … Ant?

Imagine it’s a slow day and you’re watching an ant carry a crumb larger than itself back to its nest. Suddenly, you think: if that ant can do that, I can certainty do this thing I’ve been thinking about and wanting to do. That's the ants at work, shifting the ground beneath your belief systems.

There are other ants … the phone rings and your life shifts … you turn right when you normally turn left … someone hands you a book … or you stand up and ask a stranger a question. There are millions of ant moments in the world and you never know when they’ve changed your life until you look backwards, tracing the winding path back to the beginning and finding an ant hill of tiny shifts, decisions, and happenstance. 
And, at the top of that tiny mountain, there’s this smirking ant holding a sign that says: 


Author Ann Patchett calls them breadcrumbs rather than ants. In her 2006 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence, she said, 
"Every choice leads you to a trail of breadcrumbs so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a breadcrumb in sight, just a few shrubs, a few trees and woodland creatures … 
Call them breadcrumbs or ants, we almost never recognize them when they happen. Only in hindsight do we look backwards and say, “Wow! I wouldn’t be here, doing this today, if that tiny event hadn’t happened."

Somehow, I think the shift that happened today might just be the work of ants … but, of course, I won’t know until some day in the future when I look back and say, “Yes, that’s when it started.” 
Of course, beginnings are just beginnings. Unless, I carry forward and follow the call of this project … unless I choose to do the work to make it something, when I look back, there will be nothing to see and I won't even think about all those tiny ants scurrying around trying to create a new path.

Today I stood up and took a minuscule risk. Tomorrow and for many days into the future, I will have to stand up again and take another risk. I will have to risk talking to strangers and making myself vulnerable. I think it might be slightly easier because I can remember today's magical moment when I felt the Universe write “YES!” across the sky.
Ann Patchett gave the 2006 commencement speechfor Sarah Lawrence and it was so popular, she later converted into the short book What now?

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Willingness to wobble

Hallway in Renaissance Reno Downtown
I spent two thoroughly enjoyable years in Mexico. I loved the beauty and diversity of the land, the kindness and generosity of the people, and being immersed in a different culture and history. When I suddenly knew that it was time to leave, I wasn’t sure quite why. I said, “family,” and that was true, but it wasn’t all of it. Walking gradually offered me some other clues.

Here in Reno, where the streets are flat, walking became, once again, a mental activity rather than a way to meet my basic needs, traversing the cobblestone streets which require constant attention to foot placement. The joy of following my feet wherever they wanted to take me freed my mind to wander and wonder. 
This morning, while walking through the whitewater park along the river, I saw a man wobbling on a balance line strung between a pole and a tree. It wasn’t a familiar sight so I went over, iPhone in hand, and asked if I could take his picture. He said, “Sure” and I watched as he walked (wobbled) across the line, muscles taught, ukulele in his left hand waving through the air as his balance came and went.

When he stopped and I asked him why he was doing this, he talked about balance. Then I asked him if he was trying to do something crazy (thinking about the dare devils who cross canyons) and he said, “Yes.” He obviously wasn’t ready to be more than the two feet off the ground, so I’m sure I looked shocked.  He said he wanted to be able to do back flips and play his ukulele while walking the line. I laughed and offered to send him a photo, and, with his email safely in my phone, walked on.

It wasn’t until I was sitting at a coffee shop, watching the river flow by, that it struck me: that was something I had missed in Mexico … those random, spontaneous conversations that add a sliver of understanding to my view of the world. In Mexico, my lack of language fluency precluded me from connecting with strangers or hearing bits of conversation as I walked through the world. I worked hard at learning the language and was making progress, but reality (and a friend) told me it would be another 3-5 years before I would be conversationally fluent. 

Maybe if I were 40, I would have continued that journey. However, it wasn’t just the language. I was also missing enormous chunks of understanding of the culture, the history, and the governmental structure that affected every day life. I am a learner so I could have eventually filled in those blanks. However, learning takes time and effort and were those things my priority for my learning efforts?

Raffy, the man on the balance line, taught me how much I had yearned for those random connections with other lives, those lessons spelled out in actions rather than words. He had set his line up in a public park, willing to be seen learning something new, wobbling, flailing, wobbling again.  And, he had an outrageous goal to turn backflips and play the ukulele. Could he even turn back flips or play the ukulele on the ground?
It made me wonder where in my own life I was lacking the willingness to wobble in public ... and were my own goals outrageous enough?
On my journey home, I passed a small house, woman weeding her small garden, man on a porch swing apparently talking on the phone. My ears turned toward the conversation and the joy of eaves-dropping, something I also missed in Mexico. I heard … Marx … the principles of Utopia …

I laughed and walked on, happy to understand another bit of why I pulled up stakes once again. 

Monday, August 19, 2019

Reno Duck Race

How do you dump 20,000 little rubber duckies into a river and then pick them all up again? And, how do you determine the winner when hundreds of people are watching the process hoping their Duckie is the one that will bring them a new car?

Just another day in Reno on my morning walk as I happened upon the Nevada Humane Society setting up for the Duck Race. This afternoon they will release a flock of little rubber duckies into the Truckee River and the fastest ducks will win prizes for their sponsors. It's all part of the Duck Race for the Nevada Humane Society … a race organized by a fund-raising game company that says it has raised over $280 million partnering with more than 2000 organizations.

How could I resist? As I shelled out $20 for a Quack Pack (5 ducks), I learned that these weren’t MY ducks … they were only leased. If I wanted one to keep, I could buy one for another $3. At the end of the race the volunteers would have to fish all the ducks out of the water to return them to the originator of the event.

Finally, it was time. The crowd did a 10 to 1 countdown; the assisting firemen opened the gates and the yellow duckies flooded into the rushing waters on their way to making a few people happy. As of yet, I haven’t gotten the call telling me to pick up the keys to my new car.

I knew Reno was quirky, now it turns out that they are also quacky. 


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Love Letters to my life #14: Stop letting worry steal joy

by Joyce Wycoff

(We know the day we were born, but most of us do not know the day we will die. This love letter to my life is written on the day I've designated as my death day, the 17th of every month, and reminds me to be grateful for my incredible life.)

Twisting around another narrow, hairpin turn, I knew I was on the wrong road. There was no signal on my phone to show me where I was or how to get to where I wanted to go, so frustration rose as I did an ungraceful 3-point … or 13-point … u-turn.  
What was I doing out here in the middle of nowhere? 
I could be home, safe in my little nest. 
Thank god I’m not pulling the trailer I almost bought. 
I’d just unhitch it and leave it.

Thoughts about what I was doing … and why … jumbled through my brain. Was I crazy to be trying to go kayaking by myself? Had I just wasted a bunch of money on the kayak and an easy-up rack? I’d never kayaked by myself before … at 73, did any of this make sense? 

Of course, it wasn’t like I was wandering the mountains of Patagonia. I was a few miles outside Grass Valley, California, looking for Scotts Flat Lake, where I had swum many times before. But, still, I was lost: hot, tired and frustrated, not at all sure I was up to the task ahead of me. What if the rack didn’t work? What if I couldn’t get the kayak to the water? Did I remember the paddles? What if … ? What if …?

What I really wanted was to go home … curl up on my comfy couch with my computer. When I finally knew where I was, it was a crossroads decision: lake or home? 

Scotts Flat Lake
An image of cool water and my lime-green kayak on the soft turquoise lake carried the day, but the challenges weren’t over. The kayak is light but awkward and the haul from the parking spot to the water stretched across an eternity of concrete. I tried but couldn’t carry it more than a few feet without being a siren screaming for help: Old lady needs rescuing! 

Once more, visions of the comforts of home filled my head, but it was now or never. Finally, I just grabbed a handle and dragged the boat to the water. Of course, it was down hill and  the thought of dragging it back up again launched a dozen new worries.

I would like to end this saga with an upbeat statement about how the gloriously cool, beautiful water washed away all my frustrations, and I kayaked into the sunset … however, it didn’t quite work out that way. The water was wonderful and it was great to be back in a kayak ... but, my hat was wrong, I didn’t have sunglasses or straps for my prescription glasses, my water sandals vacuumed up sand and rocks, hobbling me when I beached, and I didn’t know if my waterproof camera bag would work. Plus, I kept thinking about that long haul back up the hill.

In other words, worrying and fretting stole much of the joy of being in and on the water, something I had yearned for. The trip home continued the frustration. I was going to explore Donner Lake but my low fuel light came on just as I exited toward the marina. Another u-turn, a minimal input of $4.15 gas, and a bag of potato chips and I was headed for home where I arrived … exhausted, sore from uphill hauling of the kayak and an hour of qi gong in the morning, and basically brain-fried.

Morning after: Amazing what a good night’s sleep will do. Showering off the after-effects of yesterday, I realized I’m not ready to give in to the entropy of age. I don’t worry about gray hair and wrinkles, but I don’t want to lose the strength needed to live the life I want to live. I walk every day, but I need more upper body strength and I need to keep pushing into the activities that bring me joy.
All of this morphed into an acronym formula for this stage of life … SAG: Strong - Active - Growing … and a bit of humor …

When you start to sag, at least SAG right.

Then an E showed up … SAGEStrong - Active - Growing - Enjoying life.

That’s what I want to be as long as possible.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Book Review: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Normally, my reviews of anything Barbara Kingsolver writes are filled with superlatives. As I approached the end of this book, picked up by happenstance at the library, my only words were: brilliantly boring.

Boring isn’t exactly the right word … maybe normal? A perfect family … a perfectly imperfect family … with no happy ending in sight. 
Kingsolver skillfully skips back and forth between two families more than a hundred years apart, sharing only a town and a falling down house between them, never depending on the novelist’s grab bag of dramatic arcs to manipulate the tension. 
The metaphor of the lives of both families is a failing house deteriorating under the relentless assault of time with little hope of repair or renovation; a home that does not shelter and holds no hopes for the future.

Reading this book is like having coffee with a friend whose luck has been on a long-term downward slope: a train wreck in progress. It is an uneasy feeling, made worse by caring about your friend, but wishing you could just walk away or snap your finger for magic to appear. 

Kingsolver is not a Hollywood writer. 
You just know that no one is going to gallop in and save the day.  
So how will it end?

The ending begins in the middle of page 400, in a cemetery where a mother-daughter sit talking in a way that made me want to run away as the truth unfolded and I saw myself as both mother-daughter and as human being in the current state of our world. The next fourteen pages are some of the most honest I’ve ever read.

It wouldn’t be fair to even give a glimpse of their content. I just hope you don’t miss them.

For more of a detailed description of the Amazon Best Book of October, 2018:  In her insightful and politically charged new novel, Barbara Kingsolver finds deep resonances between the Victorian era’s attitudes towards science, and our own. Unsheltered begins on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, when Willa, a freelance journalist whose family has fallen on hard times, discovers that the house they’ve moved into has a “nonexistent foundation.” Hoping to enlist restoration help from a historical society, Willa traces the origins of the house to Thatcher Greenwood, a science teacher who lived there in the 1870s, and his neighbor, a real-life woman biologist named Mary Treat, whose research supported Charles Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. Just as Darwin’s theory challenged the Victorian belief in the Judeo-Christian creation myth, so too, in Willa’s era, does global warming challenge prevailing myths about the future of civilization. Kingsolver, whose 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, carries off this cleverly structured dual narrative with aplomb and with a certain degree of rage at charismatic politicians, both past and present, whose disregard for science puts humanity in peril. –Sarah Harrison Smith, Amazon Book Review

Friday, August 2, 2019

Lake Tahoe's Impossible Trail

"The path is made in the walking of it.” 
— Zhuangzi

I left Reno before sunrise to walk the new Lake Tahoe Trail. It wasn’t till I got there that I learned it was called “the impossible trail.” 
In an interview with Amy Berry, CEO of the Tahoe Fund, she said, "We call this the impossible trail, because for years people said that's a nice idea, but that's impossible. You'll never be able to build that,”

The need for a trail was great because as people stop to park or look at the lake on this stretch of State Route 28, it became the site of frequent accidents. Now pedestrians and lake are separated by a path ten feet wide, with seventeen vista points and multiple staircases giving people access to the beaches. 

At 7 am, I had my choice of the 91 parking places at Ponderosa Ranch Road, the beginning of the trail. The sun was still behind the mountains so the light was dim, the air brisk, and the world quiet … not quite silent because early morning traffic was already on the move. The first mile is on the uphill side of the road and then descends through a tunnel and emerges next to the lake for the next 1.5 
One of the plaques at the viewing stations
As I walked, I imagined a conversation among trees and water and sky. Plaques attached at the viewing stations added words and quickly turned my thoughts in new directions.
Toni Morrison: At some point in our life, the world’s beauty becomes enough.
Henry David Thoreau: A lake is a landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eyes looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.
John Muir: In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.
Albert Einstein: Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything.
John Muir: Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Perhaps “the impossible trail” is a metaphor for our lives. We may think something is impossible, and then the right time attracts the necessary will and resources and suddenly it’s as if something that was thought impossible is just there … as if it had always existed. 
 If you decide to visit this amazing trail, I suggest early morning (7ish) as the parking lot was filled when I returned around 9ish. And for a great breakfast afterwards (with free coffee), try Sunshine Deli and Catering.
This video gives you another view of the trail:
Click here for video.
Thank you to everyone who made this impossible trail possible. Apparently 550 people donated over a million dollars to the Tahoe Fund which triggered more money from the government to make the trail possible.