Reflections: What a Difference a Year Makes

Is it possible that it was really a year ago that I retired ? Yes, that funny thing called time. Most days fly by like a blur, but occasionally time lags. A half an hour that feels like a lifetime. A lot has happened this year. 

I lost my dear friend, Dorothy, and I miss her every day. That was back in February, just a few short months after my last day at work and just weeks before Covid would hit our community like a runaway train.

It was unquestionably hard the month she was dying. I wonder what might have happened had she survived just weeks longer. A lockdown in a care facility without visitors ? What would she have thought about Covid ? I often wonder how many casualties there have been due to the isolation factor ?  Could someone actually die of loneliness ? Though the end was incredibly difficult to witness, she was surrounded by those who cared deeply for her.

Bless her fierce heart. 

Here is an excerpt from one of the long nights I spent with her:

” I want to say there is something reverent in being here, but if there is, it is escaping me tonight. In the dim light, contorted on the tiny couch, I tap away on the even tinier keyboard of my smart phone. Yellow light is spilling in from the hallway and the oxygen machine has a “bang -whirr -flap” sound as it circulates.

With my good ear poised to capture all the sound of the room, I lie on my side and listen to the rattle coming from Dorothy’s chest with every breath. It can sound distressing as air is pushed through the small pool developing in the back of her throat. Even as I know it is harder for me to hear than for her to bear, I can’t get used to it. I keep straining, listening for it.

I want to be sitting next to her, holding her hand but I have learned that even that kind of light touch can wake her and set in motion a cycle of challenging rises and falls deep into the night. I’m not here to make things harder. I keep nodding off and then waking with a start. I don’t hear the breath. I’m about to jump up when the gasp comes. The natural apnea is unpredictable and I’ve grown uncomfortable with it. If breathing is beautiful noise, this apnea is its trickster cousin.

It occurs to me that perhaps the reverence lives in these soft, gray walls. I imagine hundreds of stories held in these rooms, all completely different and yet oddly similar to my own. I wonder how many others sought to share these moments as a way to make sense of them. Some of you have reached out with a big “YES, I felt that too” and it helps me to know that you have walked this path with someone close to you. It is in the the things shared that we see our oneness.

This whole experience has not been without something gained. It is the positive that remains after the exchange has been made: time and presence for the extraordinary experience of truly holding space.

Dorothy is clinging to this life with a firm grip. We have spoken about what’s happening and she knows that this is her journey. Hanging on and letting go – doing this intricate dance under her careful direction. She is not ready just yet but myself and others are in it with her until she is.”

(I wrote more about a few of those nights here. Dorothy ♡ )

I still think of her often. When I left her house that last time my eye fell to a small owl figure sitting quietly on a shelf. I took it home with me that night. It rests on my desk, watching over me.

Late this summer, on one of my dozens of trips to the wildlife refuge in Nisqually, the haze was thick from wildfires blazing across the west. On the estuary boardwalk the smoky haze combined with morning mist so that I couldn’t see more than thirty feet ahead of me. It was eerie and beautiful with so much hanging heavily in the air.

It was then I saw it. A ruffle of feathers and then a scramble upward. Appearing on the rail before me, like a mystic, was an owl. A great-horned owl.

Was it a visitation ? It sure seemed so. Those laser eyes staring at me through the haze. Neither of us moved. I got off a few shots before it led me to the end of the boardwalk and then flew silently away. I love those moments when I feel like I am exactly where I’m supposed to be.

I had begun 2020 doing a few winter hikes and had plans of a spring road trip down the coast to California’s Redwoods. Picturing in my mind the mist in the trees and the sheer enormity of the forest, I looked forward to finding a new perspective there. If I ever saw those giants in my younger days, I have no memory of it. 

As winter was making it’s last stand in late February, I had begun to stretch my boundaries, moving further south on each day-trip that I planned.

Then, in early March, I lost my friend Diana. 

In many ways, that was even harder. Younger than me, her loss stung. It piggy-backed onto the deep grief I was already feeling and it settled in. For the months that followed, there were more questions than answers about her passing and in my mind, those questions still remain. It was a jarring loss. It brought more introspection and an even deeper dive into self.

Speaking with a dear friend of hers later, we talked a lot about how we were feeling. How curiosity turns to a kind of panic. Circular thoughts, always winding back into themselves. Were there signs ? Did we miss something ? Could we have possibly known ? Does anyone really ever know the heart of another ? 

I wrote more about her here if you’d like to read it:

Further Out Than You Thought. 

Then Covid hit. First, the scare, then the long reaching tentacles of this pandemic. This deadly virus will change how we engage in the presence of others for months (maybe years) to come. Masks. No touching. No coffee shops. No new yoga class. No restaurants. No family. No friends. No togetherness. 

I know how much Covid changed the lives of my former co-workers too. Such a scary time to be forced to engage when so little was known about transmission. The saber-rattling from a raging commander-in-chief made everything worse. Knowing full well how little respect had been given postal workers during past threats, I knew this could be worse by far. And it was.

And I was never more grateful to be free of it.

Nothing in my new retirement really went as planned. There was always a certain folly in that kind of magical thinking. Having learned that the only day that never comes is tomorrow, makes clear that the only time that really matters is now.  

I’ve been reading more and listening to books on tape when I drive. It’s the best way I know of to drown out the current noise of the world. With regard to the upcoming election, I’ve limited my viewing of news sites, choosing instead, if at all, to listen directly to the candidates (minus the spin).

I actually believe everyone would benefit from that strategy. Watch the debates. Watch the speeches. Watch the interviews. The choice this year is obvious if you value intelligence and compassion over bluster and fear-mongering. I don’t need Facebook or CNN to remind me that I value honesty, transparency and competence. I really love smart people, and I’ll be voting with my head AND my heart in 2020. 

I’ve also started following writers dedicated to “keeping it real”. I know that comes off a little bit judgemental, but I’m not looking for someone to paint me a rosy picture. I know what is at stake. There are a lot of writers who will “pretty things up” and try to make the reality of these times a bit more palatable, but it doesn’t feel genuine. I want to hear from the people who crawl back into bed some mornings. People who lose their temper. People who “ugly cry” in the car or the tub or the driveway because sometimes it all just feels like too much. 

Those are my people. 

If only they were ‘really’ my people. 

I miss what I’ve never really had. 

As a young person, I struggled often with fitting in. I craved acceptance and it wasn’t always easy to come by. Not at home and not out in the world. Those were hard years. Feeling that kind of rejection can get deep into your psyche. It’s like an illness that lies dormant until something touches it off and it comes roaring back

That said, the new make-up of the Supreme Court is terrifying if you are an LGBTQ person. To say it feels like the slamming of a door is probably an understatement. The fear is creeping back in.

I know that there are people that see this all as some kind of game they’re winning. A conservative super majority on SCOTUS. An “originalist” on the court who believes the Constitution to be essentially “dead”. To rule on cases where the evolution of information, thought and understanding is not a factor, has deeply troubling implications. Those who think this is all about abortion will have a rude awakening. 

I know that there are people lurking in the quietest corners of my world. People who support this president and this reckless interpretation of the Constitution. You should know that I take it personally. How could I not ? Sadly, I will lose some of them this coming year. Not to illness and not to fate. But to ignorance.

It’s a complicated time. Our allegiance to ideologies are overtaking our allegiance to one another. It scares me. I won’t go down this road today, but when did a knee on the neck or children in cages or hateful and divisive speech become, not just tolerated, but acceptable behavior ? I don’t know us anymore. And that scares me even more.

Trying to find my own tribe in the midst of these new realities has been so hard. Often, I walk the boardwalk and the trails, wrestling with the feeling that for some people, I am still not good enough. Old wounds. The hateful and divisive rhetoric is not just hurtful, it’s dangerous. I need to surround myself with those who are unwavering in their love and support. These are extraordinary times and we haven’t the luxury of indifference.

Perhaps it’s true that this year has fundamentally changed who we are. For as much as I am aware of my own shifting priorities, I’ve also become more keenly aware of the things that act as anchor and ballast for me. Or rather, I am more keenly aware of the people. 

Choose the ones who make you feel good about who you are. We might stagger, but we’ll never fall, if what holds us up is the unconditional support of those who know and love us. That is to say: those who know us and love us anyway.

I hope that those who have been thrust into more intimate roles with young people during this crisis recognize how extraordinarily important it is to build these young people up. There is no perfect way to be doing any of this, so they are never doing it wrong. The feelings of inadequacy that can arise from criticism linger much longer than we ever imagined. 

Maybe that’s part of what retirement from the “busyness” of a work life is all about. Finally recognizing those triggers and dealing with things head on. As we see our lives getting smaller, there is neither reason nor benefit in chasing after people who will never “see” you. You don’t ever have to waste time or energy to do the work reconciling someone else’s “idea” of who you are. Any idea or person that does not reinforce and celebrate your uniqueness isn’t worth the energy it takes to keep the connection. There is a time you must let go.

Wow. I digress. 

I have spent this year trying to humbly recognize what means of expression are best for me. What do I do well ? But more importantly, what do I love ?  I have a few exciting things happening in January and both bring those two questions into clearer focus. What I do well, converging, with what I love. I am feeling confident as I move into the coming year that I am on the right path for me. I still don’t pretend to know what it will look like, but I believe in ME. 

The book I have hoped to write is on hold for now even as I continue to slip notes, pages and journal entries into boxes that hold those pieces. Maybe I’ll never write it and that has to be okay too.

There is a lot that deserves to be heard. What matters most is recognizing that I have something to share. There are many ways to tell our stories. Will I find that voice in word, photography or art ?  Maybe a combination of all three ? No way to really know without just putting one foot in front of the other and not straying too far from the path.

What I have missed the most this year is the presence of people. I went from a couple hundred interactions every day, to a handful. And some days it isn’t even that. I never saw myself as a social person until I lost the “cover” of my job. Turns out I really like most people and I miss the engagement even more than I thought I would. We are social beings and Covid has become a game-changer. I miss the connections. 

As this virus, and our behavior around it evolves, I hope to get back to some of my familiar haunts. I look forward to some surprise visits and hearing how you’re all doing in this extraordinary time. I miss you. I really miss you.

I appreciate those of you who have followed me here, and especially those who occasionally comment to let me know you’re out there. It is enormously gratifying to write to you. To write for you.

I suppose I still manage to over-share sometimes. I may never fully appreciate that it can make people uncomfortable when I do that, but it’s who I am. I trust that you are here because you understand that and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

If you’re new to my blog, I want to share the post I wrote one year ago, in which I tried to sum up how I was feeling about the day. The day that my whole life would change. A big twist of the kaleidoscope. 

(Fair warning: it’s a long post)

(You can read A Love Letter, here. )

And an addendum to that, 

Where I’m From

With deep gratitude for the company, I thank you.  

I’m so, so glad you’re here ❤

8 Comments on “Reflections: What a Difference a Year Makes

  1. Wow. Just wow. I finally got time to sit and savor every word of this. It’s so beautiful. And you gave me a new peace about not getting out of my chair in my mother’s room to hold her hand as she died in her sleep. Her only fear of dying was that there would be pain. She was on enough morphine that there would not have been, even if she were awake, but maybe she would have been more afraid–the “death rattle” also made me uncomfortable. Would holding her hand have brought her to the surface? Even held her back from her task? Who can know; but maybe I chose the right thing. I was there, I hope she knew.

    Thank you for all these reflections on your year of retirement. It may not have gone as expected, but I suspect it was just what it needed to be. I am hopeful that this election will be a turning point, and a good beginning to your second year. Also, I really hope you write the book. If it’s anything like your posts, it will be beautiful and an inspiration.

    Gretchen

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for these words. I thought of you more than once on those long nights. Finally understanding the exhaustion.The tenderness. The grieving that begins long before and lasts well beyond that moment of passing. Of course she knew you there. 

      Yes, I imagine my year has unfolded exactly as it was meant to. I need help moving forward with the book but I haven’t given up. The coming year looks bright. I believe that. But, what a long, strange trip it’s been … 

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  2. Thanks, Bonnie for another of your well written posts. What an interesting year to be your first after retirement which in ordinary circumstances can be very confusing and uncertain. But maybe it was a benefit in some ways, because it gave you more time to be aware of different perspectives. If you were still working it would be very easy to slip into a feeling of hopelessness, or anger, because there certainly has been much to encourage those responses. You seem to be very much on track and I appreciate your sharing of your explorations. And your photographs are way beyond good. Keep the faith.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for all of that. I so appreciate the support and kind words. I have wondered that same thing about perspective. We forget sometimes there are gifts buried in the ordinary, the sorrow and the unexpected. I imagine my life is unfolding exactly as it was meant to. And so be it. It has left me rich beyond measure. 

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  3. Hi Bonnie and thank you for your ongoing explorations of what it means to be a conscious human being during these challenging times. From my perspective, you have done a lot during this first year of retirement – holding space for Dorothy as she moved on from this life and sifting through your reactions to the loss of Diane are profound processes that will certainly serve you well as you wrestle with your own mortality. I see you as a pioneer who has taught me so much about being intentional as I navigate my own retirement and find ways to get to know the depth of the urban ecology that surrounds me. At first I was envious of your ability to hike in the mountains and explore the beauty of the PNW, but now I am realizing that my region is also beautiful in its own way, if I just look more carefully and notice.

    I look forward to the day when we can meet in person, hike those trails together and help each other continue to notice the beauty that is all around, as well as within us. Keep up the great work! Thanks for sharing your wisdom and beauty this way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for being here, Judy. We really ARE experiencing somewhat parallel lives in retirement.The world gets a little smaller in some ways and so much more expansive in others. It really took a good year for me to settle into it. I remember a friend pleading with me to just “let life happen” for awhile. I’ll look forward to some good “walking and talking time” once this (quite persistent) threat passes. In the meantime, yes, keep doing what you love ! That IS the path and it is quite beautiful beneath our feet.

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