Tuesday, January 28, 2014


I must have been no more than nine or ten when I began to understand I had a psychological flaw that would hound me for life.  And that if I wanted to be accepted as sane, I would have to keep a sheet over it forever.

I am a closet hypochondriac. 

Not the kind who is always running to doctors and has a warehouse full of medicines.

Nope.  Just the kind who constantly frets about what is going on with herself physically.  Every day, EVERY DAY, there is some new (or old) ache or pain or spot or twinge that has me walking that obsessive tightrope stretched over the pit of paralyzing fear that there is something wrong with me and I’m going to die.

All this goes on inside my head.  I cannot, DARE not share it with anyone.  Except in a self-deprecating, jokey way when I approach the end of a particularly stressful rope.  And even that, only very occasionally.

It’s something that no one really understands about me.  I don’t believe that when I walk into a room, people think, “Oh god…here comes that hypochondriac again.”  And if they had any idea of how much this crap occupies my mind, that’s exactly what they would think.  I have alluded to this issue a couple of times (in ten years!) in this blog, but I don’t believe that it’s part of my internet persona.  And, again…it would be, if I wrote about it as often as it is in my mind. 

But I can’t.  Because I know it’s insanity, and I can’t let it out.  Can’t let it get a foothold in my outside-my-head life.    I just…deal with it.  It’s part of who I am, part of the “me” nobody knows.  When you think about it, we all have large parts of our souls that are known to only ourselves.  Some of these things we prize and cherish.  Some, we keep contained, as if we were sitting on top of Pandora’s box.

So why do I bring this up today?

Because I have spent the entire month of January either direly sick or direly afraid of being sick or getting sicker.   Every time I would think I was getting things under control, I’d stumble upon another news story or Facebook entry about someone who was in the hospital, in a medically-induced coma, or had died from the flu.  I’m pissed at the media for sensationalizing all this.  I’m pissed at myself for letting it get to me.  I’m pissed that I let it screw up my vacation.  I’m just…PISSED!  I’ve had no peace for almost a month.  And I have to get it back.

I have to admit, I’m hopeless when it comes to following any routine.  This is nowhere more apparent—or more detrimental—than in my spiritual life.  People talk about daily prayer or meditation or sacred reading, and I simply cannot relate.  Though I’m certain that a day to day spiritual practice would be nothing but beneficial, I just…can’t?  Don’t?  Won’t?  And I have no idea why this is so.

I wrote a couple of years ago about the practice of what I will call “personal smudging” to which I was introduced by a friend back in 2010, at a time when I was in desperate need of a higher level of contact with the Spirit.  It’s basically a ritual whereby I light some sage and smudge myself from toe to head as I face each of the four directions.  “Spirit of the East, help me find my peace.  Spirit of the South, help me know my peace.  Spirit of the West, help me guard my peace.  Spirit of the North, help me share my peace.”  When I do this, I really do feel a peace settle upon me, one that calms my constant fluttering and flailing, one that quiets my fretting mind. 

The way I have been feeling this whole month, I should have been smudging every day…or,  perhaps if I had performed the ritual even once, I could have snatched myself out of this downward spiral weeks ago.  It was as if I had forgotten where I was supposed to go when I’m in need (I do this all the time, have done all my life, and I have no idea why.)    But this morning, I suddenly remembered what to do.   Desperate and frustrated, I retrieved my sage, matches and crystals from my travel bag (I brought them on vacation but never did use them…) and threw open the window and door in the family room (it is traditional to give the negative energy an escape route once it is smoked out of one’s body.)  I lit the sage and performed the ritual…once, twice, and a third time for good measure.  With a month’s worth of physical illness and negative energy pent up inside me, perhaps it took that much repetition to produce an effective cleansing. 

Toward the end of my ceremony, a soft rain began to fall outside.  I turned to watch it, and caught a glimpse of something special.  A gift.  A message.

I spotted one of the little delicate jewels of my yard—a hummingbird—dipping and splashing in my little glass bird bath out on the deck.  Reveling in the rain shower and the fresh bath water.  Washing off the dust and grunge of this dry winter month.  Just as I was attempting to do with my sage and my smoke.

What was the message?  That I had succeeded?  That I had indeed cleansed the film of illness and fear from my spirit?  That my joy—represented by Hummingbird—was now clean and fresh and released?

I believe so.  Desperate for peace, I discovered joy as well.  Sent to me personally by the Creator of the Universe.  It’s wonderful to be caught up in such an awesome love. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

What I Did On My Winter Vacation

Day Two, post-Klamath-Basin-vacation-redux.  Appropriately, the weather here is dingy and uncertain, a sort of “welcome home” to the Columbia/Willamette valley in midwinter.  It’s supposed to start raining this evening, and continue raining through Friday.  Can’t say I’m looking forward to that…but we do need the rain.  The West has suffered from a dire lack of wet this winter, and they’re already fighting fires in the coast range—an unheard-of thing for January.  While the rest of the country is getting buried under (our) tons of precipitation, we are drying up and blowing away. 

Our time in southern Oregon was mostly satisfactory, but not nearly as magical as last year’s sojourn.  The lingering effects of our encounter with H1N1 kept us from taking best advantage of the dry, sunny weather.  When you still feel fragile, brittle and breathless around the edges, you don’t plan long hikes into the back country or climb scrubby hills to eagle perches. 

We did manage a short walk in the snow at Crater Lake—to which we never had any expectations of being able to navigate in midwinter.  The fifteen-foot snow poles—those tall sticks placed at intervals along mountain roads that are meant to guide snow-removal equipment through snowfalls normally measured in feet—sprouted in gangly nakedness along the roadside up to the lake.  In a normal year, only a few inches of those poles might be visible in the middle of January.  The scary-dry weather, that will undoubtedly turn out to be problematic as we head into spring and summer, at least presented us with an opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do:  see Crater Lake in the snow. 

That unexpected treat, along with our two-mile hike through Captain Jack’s Stronghold,  (click on the link--it’s a fascinating story), were the good things bestowed upon us, to balance out the major negative brought about by the unusual weather:  the marked absence of wildlife.  

Last year when we were in Klamath, I’m guessing that the weather was much closer to normal for this time of year than it has been this winter.  It rained, it snowed, it sleeted, it fogged (the fog was the best—my first experience of hoar frost…I was completely enchanted) AND we saw enough of the sun to allow us to shake off the foggy-rainy-northwestern-valley blues.  Temperatures ranged from below zero to almost fifty during our seven days in the Basin last year.  Wonky weather, for sure, but apparently much more conducive to raptor and prey animal activity.

This year, besides the unyielding bright and dry weather, the Basin was recovering from the effects of an unusual cold snap in mid-December.  The early sub-zero temperatures froze large reaches of shallow water from an earlier storm.  Normally, these areas would have been much dryer before that kind of cold arrived. Since December, there has been little rain—which would melt the ice—and the temps plunge into the high teens every night.  So, where last year there were fields of grass and forage dotted with pockets of open water or swamp to attract prey animals, this year, there are miles and miles of skating ponds.  The habitat looked more like tundra than marsh.  The places where there was open water were far from the viewing areas—not reachable by car, foot or boat.  It was frustrating to be able to hear the voices of thousands of water fowl, but have them be so far away you could rarely catch even a distant glimpse of them.   With water fowl and field animal habitat so compromised in areas that were anywhere near the viewing routes, sightings and photo-ops were slim pickings. 

Honestly, I’m only taking educated guesses about why the visible cast of characters on the refuge differed so markedly from last year to this.  The only thing I know for a fact is that where last year we saw hundreds of raptors, several eagles and many owls, this year we saw…deer.  By the dozens.  And a fair number of pheasant and grouse.  But almost no ducks, a few small flights of snow geese (and one impossibly huge flock which we could not get anywhere near), a swan here and there, and some flocks of Canadas foraging in half-thawed farm fields.

Had it not been for one spur-of-the-moment side trip along the precarious shore of Upper Klamath Lake, with juniper forest straight up on one side, and on the other, the lake in spitting distance from the one-way dirt road—which I’ve no doubt would have been impassable had weather conditions been usual for this time of year—we would have come away from this vacation without any outstanding wildlife encounter to treasure.  But we did chance that dirt road, and were rewarded by a visit with an unflappable and photogenic little soul with whom I fell head-over-heels in love:  an engaging little ball of feathers which I later identified as a Northern Pygmy Owl.

This vacation was also notable for at least one other thing that has nothing to do, really, with wildlife or weather.  The husband and I managed to spend six solid days in close proximity to one another without yelling, bickering, pouting or tears.  And when we got home, we still liked each other enough not to immediately head in opposite directions.  Given the normal state of our relationship, this is a surprising and good thing!

So, today is the first day of the rest of 2014.  And even though our interlude in southern Oregon didn’t quite measure up to last year’s in some ways, I think it has deposited us rested and refreshed on the threshold of the new year.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to have a plan…    


Monday, January 13, 2014

Three Hundred Fifty Dollars and the Good Old Days

Back in 2001, when we first moved back to the Portland area from Eugene, the first job I landed  was for a company called “FiComm.”  The job was boring and mostly served to reinforce to me exactly how unsuited I am for office work.  I worked there for less than a month before I took a different position that involved neither sitting at a desk staring at a computer screen nor a thirty-mile daily commute.

The lady who ran the business was a total flake, as far as I was concerned.  But she did have a policy whereby the company put money into retirement accounts for employees as part of its compensation package.  In my less than thirty days with her company, I somehow amassed something between $350 and $400 in one of these accounts.

Now, I have been aware of this account for twelve years.  The powers that be have dutifully sent me quarterly statements detailing all account activity, which, since I have neither taken any of the money out nor added to it, has mostly amounted to the balance being steadily whittled away by service charges on the account.  I cannot recall if the balance EVER grew, between 2001 and 2007.  But when the stock market tanked in 2008, it began to shrink dramatically.  In fact, at one time, I considered contacting these folks and closing the account, because I was concerned that, at the rate they were charging fees, I would end up with a negative balance—and I did not want to OWE someone money for providing the outstanding service of…sucking up all my money.  Luckily, once the balance shrank to less than $50, the charges seemed to let up.

Today, I got a statement telling me they just charged the “annual plan fee” to the account, which has brought the balance down to $32.56.  Ninety percent of my original account balance has been eaten away by bank fees and charges.  I have not MADE one red cent on that three hundred bucks.  And after twelve years, it is almost gone.

I got to wondering, what would have happened if this was forty years ago, and I had $350 in a regular passbook account that I had just left sit and never touched for twelve years? 

Back in the Stone Age, a regular passbook account paid around 5% interest.  Some as high as 5 ¼%, or 5½%.  But let’s just use that 5% figure for purposes of this demonstration.  If I had left $350 in a plain old passbook account for 12 years and never touched it, I’d have $628.55 today.  Back in the nineties, Certificates of Deposit came into vogue, because banks wanted to keep your money for at least six months if you expected to get any kind of interest out of them at all.  Still, the rates back then were around 3%.  If I’d left that money sit for 12 years at 3%. I’d have $499.02 today. 

But that’s not what I have.  I have less than 33 bucks.  Less than 10% of my original balance is left.  In two more years, after those $15 annual “plan fees” are charged, I’ll have virtually nothing.

If I had pulled that money out of the “investment” account and stuck it in my mattress, I’d have $350.  Or at least, whatever portion of $350 I would have had left after paying the “plan” to let me have it.  Actually, I doubt that "my" money was ever likely to be somewhere that I could have gotten my hands on it, so I don’t think it could ever have made it into my mattress.  But if it had, I’d have more than $33 left.  Or I’d have $350 worth of something to show for it.

So, forgive me if I think that the whole “IRA, 401K” theory of “putting money away” for retirement is just one big, fat SCAM.  A way for Big Business to do away with employee pensions, without appearing to do away with employee pensions.  They hold a gun to our heads to sink our own money into retirement accounts—if we don’t, we are deadbeats!—and then they steal it.  They long ago succeeded in thoroughly commandeering private sector “retirement” money, and now they’re working on public employee pensions.  And at the same time, they’re working overtime to additionally rob us, of the only thing most of us will have any prayer of depending upon for retirement income—Social Security.  Big business, the “haves,” the one percent—call them what you will—will not rest until they get their hands on that money, too.  They want it all.  There is never any such thing as “enough” for those who already have 90%.

I know…the handwriting has been on that particular wall for quite awhile now.  Retirement perdition was already clearly on the horizon ten years ago.  But I didn’t worry much.  I still felt young and strong and able to bend at least some part of the future to my own will.  So what if I couldn’t retire at 65?  I’m fit, I’m healthy….I can work until I’m 70 or 75—no problem!  Who wants to retire, anyway?  Who wants to be bored and unchallenged for the last decades of her life?

But now…things have changed.  I’m 58 years old and “retired,” through no particular personal desire to be so.  I could still work.  I would like to work, as a matter of fact.  But in this job market, and in this American employment culture, where, inexplicably, hiring anyone over the age of 45 is a risk not worth taking; even if I HAD a sparkling resume, my chances of getting a job are slim to none.  And I would have no chance of choosing a good job, or even a suitable one.  ANY job would have to do, if I were desperate enough. 

And I am not that desperate. 

Plus, I just spent the last two weeks having the crap kicked out of me by a really nasty flu bug.  I still feel like hell, as a matter of fact, and I’m wondering when or if I’m ever going to get back to that, “Hell, I can work until I’m 70!” level of energy.  At this point, I’d be happy being able to get up and accomplish three hours of housework without developing a splitting headache or having to sit and recoup for a half hour.  When one is slapped in the face with this sort of reminder of one’s mortality, it makes one more than a tad nostalgic for the good old days.

The Good Old Days.  When ethical employers still compensated workers as if they might possibly be valuable assets.  When banks paid us for the privilege of using our money to prop up the stock market.  When retirement appeared as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, rather than a beckoning specter across a bleak and barren landscape.

When $350 would nearly double if you left it alone for twelve years.

When hard work and “saving for a rainy day” actually meant something. 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Fleshing Out Old Dreams

In my younger days, I often envisioned myself in the loft of an A-frame in the woods, surrounded by rough-sawn paneling on three sides, and a wall of windows on the fourth.  The loft is mostly empty except for me and a gigantic floor loom.  I spend my days creating jewel-toned textiles with lovely soft yarns…

And that’s kind of where the curtain closes.

Because I simply cannot take this to a place where the lovely textiles are sold for bags of money that I can use to keep the dream going.  It’s never been a practical dream.  Practicality would ruin it.  It would take it out of the realm of dream and drag it onto the stage of WORK.   How can I let my dream turn into work?

Which is why I toiled away in front of various hot cooking appliances, ruined my feet on concrete floors, damaged my hands and my fingers and my wrists toting, chopping, hefting, mixing, whisking and scooping, for over thirty years.

Lately that picture of the loft in the A-frame has been making an encore appearance behind my eyelids.

I wonder if there’s enough of me left to drag it out of my head and make it real.      

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

To Dream or Not To Dream

The beginning of a new year.  So often a time of resolution; of dreaming, planning, looking forward.  For maybe the first time in my life, looking forward is a challenge beyond my ability.  Plans and dreams?  They almost don’t seem worth the effort.

Up till now, I’ve not been one to give too much consideration to obstacles standing between me and my dreams, at least, not so early in the process.  I mean, the fact that something did or was likely to get in the way of achieving a dream didn’t keep me from dreaming.  But now…  It looks like one major failure piled on top of a lifetime of never quite being able to pull the trigger on anything remotely resembling an accomplishment has incinerated my ability to dream, right down to the roots.

And maybe that’s as it should be.  Maybe I don’t deserve to dream anymore. 

I have spent my life avoiding challenges.  I didn’t go to college because I was afraid I would fail.  I sank myself into a “career” that under-challenged my intellect, and told myself I was in it because I liked it.  Because it fit.  When the truth was, I had quickly discovered it was something I could do, and I made up my mind to look no further.  I suppose if I had known how physically and intellectually challenging my career choice would eventually turn out to be, I wouldn’t have chosen it, either. 

But, as it was, it provided everything I needed.  An income.  Something to keep me occupied; something to keep me engaged enough to forget about the dreams I had actually had, the ones I convinced myself were impractical or unobtainable because I had no clue how to go about achieving them, and I was too afraid of failure to find out.  Dreams of being a writer.  Or an artist.  Or a musician.  Dreams of living a creative life; a life for which I had no blueprint, raised as I was in middle class American suburbia.  Offspring of a bean-counter and an office worker, for whom a job was “a means to an end,” but inevitably became the end itself.

And though it hadn’t been one of my original dreams, I got married.  I had other plans, but I fell in love; glorious, deep, real and enduring love.  Or at least the degree of those superlatives to which one could aspire in the post-sexual-revolution 1970’s.  So I modified my personal dreams to include hopes and goals for my marriage.  We would always be close, best friends; always communicate, grow for the rest of our lives in love and understanding.  Always tend and cherish our relationship.  We would never become the two polite, accommodating acquaintances that my parents had become—sharing a mortgage and a bedroom, some kids and a dog. 

Somehow I combined these two unplanned directions my life had taken—neither of which bore any resemblance to dreams I had allowed myself growing up—twisted them together and formulated a “phase two” sort of dream.  So my life had changed course while I was busy making other plans…or, rather, avoiding making other plans.  I went with it.  Came up with the “someday we’ll have our own business” plan.  It seemed viable; seemed a way to make sense of my somewhat altered destiny; a way to glorify the mundane course my life had taken, to combine the things for which I had settled into a grand scheme of accomplishment and success. 

Here I am, fifty-eight years old, peering over the edge of the crater created by the rather spectacular crash and burn of that plan.  Patting myself down from head to foot…yes, I’m still alive.  Still in one piece.  Inexplicably hale and hearty, actually.  But…lost. 

The fact is, my reluctance and timidity when it came to pushing my own agenda combined to forestall my attempt to achieve it until so late in my life that, now that it’s obvious I’m not going there, I have no idea where to go.  Where I want to go.  Where I have the energy left to go.  Where I have the time to go.  I only know I’m damned sure that I do not want to be where I am now.  So…are having the knowledge, the energy or the time even worth considering?  I am not done yet, dammit, even if I don’t have a clue what to do now.   If ever there was a time in life for “Just Do It,” this would be it.

So I can’t let myself believe that I don’t deserve to dream.  I have to assimilate the lessons of despair and disillusionment the past several years have brought.  Hard as they are, those lessons have to be learned, in any life, young or old, sooner or later.  But they aren’t—they cannot be—the last lessons in the book.  The next chapter must be how to take the time and the energy and the will I have today, pile them layer upon layer into that crater, and make them into something. 

A dream.  A future.

A life.