Monday, July 21, 2008

My Anonymous Life

You may have noticed that the title of this essay is "My Anonymous Life." I wanted to entitle it "My So Called Life" after the TV show that I found so meaningful and relevant, but I decided that I did not want to be cited for plagiarism, so I rethought the title. Yes, "my anonymous life" works well because, in essence, it describes my life. I live my life invisibly and to my surprise I find that I actually prefer it that way.
I am not the kind of person who turns heads. Rather, I often enter a venue completely unnoticed. For me, that is a good thing. I prefer to fly completely under the radar, allowing myself every opportunity to observe the comings and goings of others without being detected. Sometimes I play mind games, pretending I'm an international spy: "Aha! I spent the entire evening at the party, gathering data, and no one even noticed that I was there!" A major coup, I think, to come and go anonymously. At other times, I might imagine that others see me as completely evil or demented and keep their distance accordingly. Yes, they are intimated by the unknown and unspoken; who wouldn't be? I can, after all, spend an entire evening in complete silence, adding to the mystery of myself.
Besides my quiet stealth, I have one of those faces that tends to be generic and kind of universal. You have no idea how many people have asked whether or not they know me from...well, somewhere. But no, I didn't work here or there or go to the same Ivy League school; I'm just chameleon-like, blending into the particular surroudings in which I find myself.
Perhaps others would be disturbed by the lack of attention, but in many ways I thrive on it. With it comes a certain freedom to just be. I can come and go at will and there is nothing anyone can really do about it. For example, in my volunteer position, I used to ask permission if I needed to leave early. But now I just get up and walk out. What can they do? Imagine the conversation: "Where is that woman who usually sits here? Where did she go?" "Who?" "You know, the woman who usually answers this know, what's her name?" "Um...I don't know; what IS her name?" Well, what can they do after all? They don't even know my name, lest my phone number, so they can't exactly call me and ask me not to come in. It's great! But it wouldn't be possible except for my anonymity.
Some days I think I might like to be noticed, maybe even well-known in my own right. But I don't think I could handle the stress of fame,with its endless expectations and speculation. It would be difficult to always be recognized, perhaps admired, and chased by the paparazzi. How could I throw my hair in a ponytail and venture out in my tie-died shirt and denim jeans without finding my picture in the tabloids under the headline "Stars Without Make-up" or "Blackwell Names Worst Dressed?" No, celebrity is not for me. But anonymity? Well, for a people watcher who enjoys conjuring fantasies to match the faces that I discover, it can't be beat. Watching people, unnoticed, is what I do. And it is wonderful that my invisibility offers them the freedom to be themselves. Celebrity may open doors and bring a certain connected-ness and power. But anonymity brings a freedom to be that is priceless.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Trials of Parenting

Parenting is a mysterious process that includes a great deal of trial and error. The first born always bears the biggest brunt of this process. Parents generally tend to be overprotective because they generally have no idea of what to do with him or her. How could they? They've never been parents before. And so, they try one thing and if that doesn't work, they go on to another. It's both endless and confusing. Eventually, life settles into some kind of routine that becomes a little more predictable. They can't afford to become complacent; there is no such thing as having the parenting thing down pat. As soon as life begins to run smoothly, things change. The macaroni and cheese that the child loved enough to eat exclusively for last week is now taboo. He or she won't even look at it. True, we may have gone over board on it for awhile, but that doesn't answer the question: What now? What food dares compete and can possibly replace this favored staple? It's back to trial and error once again. And then with each successive child the process begins anew, although the benefit of experience helps to a certain degree.
Yes, parenthood can be fun, even if full of adventure and mystery. Each child has things a little bit easier along the way, due to their fortune in not being the first born. With each success and failure, Mom and Dad learn, along with their children, how to become a family. As children grow, this man and woman, once just educated professionals, grow into this most important responsibility: parenthood. They come to believe that children mostly survive even in these dangerous times, and learn to relax at least a little bit. At least until the child or children reach the next phase of their life--puberty. Then, all bets are off and the rules change and become strictly enforced once again. Puberty is a life and death situation, after all, not only for the child but for mom and dad as well. It is not for the faint of heart! Boyfriends, girlfriends, driving, dating, all of the things that these children want to do--seem both dangerous and evil. "As parents, isn't it our right, even duty, to protect them?" the parents ask themselves as they think back to their own teen years.
Even as children grow into adults, the job of parenting never ends. The memories of each stage of life is just too fresh. The mother remembers cradling the babe, the dad remembers teaching her to ride her bike. "The first day of school seems like yesterday; and remember his pride at his first driver's license?" Both parents still feel both the need and desire to keeping going, being ever-present when asked to counsel and console, lend money or an ear, share their own insights on either "how to change your oil" or "how to parent." The vocation of parenting involves hanging on and letting go--both at the same time. Eventually, new life may help them grow again, from parent into grandparent. Another opportunity to begin anew. And so it goes...The circle of life--it's a wonderful thing, even if it is filled with trial and error.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Weather...or Not

There was a time when I used to be a bit of a daredevil regarding the weather. My friend, Terry, and I would pride ourselves on getting together for lunch on extreme weather days. "It's 105 in the shade--let's go to lunch...Did you hear there's a tornado watch?!--let's do lunch!....Did you see Keeler Avenue? It's turned into raging river! I'll pick you up for lunch." Only very extreme cold was considered a potential threat--not because the media warned about life-threatening wind chill, but because we were faced with cars that either didn't start at all or stalled out along the way, leaving us high and dry and calling for a ride. Blinding snow storm or 3 foot drifts never stopped us. Some considered us "storm chaser wannabes," but that wasn't it exactly. We were born and raised in the Chicago area and we weren't going to let a little weather get in our way. It was our way of being Chicago-style tough.
Although sometimes I take pause at my cavalier attitude, I have never been one to believe in letting either my fears or my lack of caution stop me from doing something that I want to do. I may be prone to a contemplative lifestyle, but I appreciate that I have to do enough living to have something to contemplate. So, if I want to do something badly enough, there's no stopping me. Especially when it came to a little bit of weather.

That was then and this is now.

Things changed for me in the summer of 2003. It was July--probably very close to this actual date! I had planned a trip to Champaign to visit my daughter and son-in-law for a few days. Erin was taking summer classes and on that day I was to be in Champaign at 4:00 PM to pick her up from her last class. Everything was set; I had the exact name and address of the building and I was to wait outside the south entrance for her to meet me.
Watching the weather channel, I knew the warnings. Storms were predicted for that afternoon, but since we had planned a definite schedule, there was no point in leaving earlier. All morning the predictions became more dire. The sky to the south was black with clouds. I decided that I had better get on the road before the storms broke, making absolutely no sense since I was driving in the direction of the storm rather than away from it. I had barely reached Matteson when the rain began. This was no regular rain, but one of those "100 year" storms that we hear about every few years. It wasn't too bad at first because traffic was slow and the windshield wipers did a fair job of keeping the windshield clear. But as traffic thinned and I got up to the minimum speed limit of 45 mph, they lost the battle in spite of their valiant efforts.
Trying to see the road through flooded glass became too much for me, but I had no choice. I couldn't see the side of the road to pull over. Not only that, another driver might not realize I was pulled over, and try to navigate his way by following my taillights. In that case, even in the event I successfully made it to the shoulder I might get rear-ended by another car. So, I did the only thing I could under those circumstances: I kept driving.
To my delight, a rest area sign seemed to appear out of nowhere. I knew the rest area was coming up, but in my predicament it might have been easy to miss. As I pulled onto the ramp, it seemed that the rain was beginning to let up, but it was probably due to my reduced speed. The water wasn't hitting the windshield with the same velocity, making the wipers effective once again.
I sat at the rest area, waiting out the storm. A few minutes later, when it was completely clear, I headed back on the road again. It was still cloudy, but much brighter and I was confident that the worst was behind me. I felt hopeful.
About thirty minutes later, I drove into the very heart of the storm system. "Torrential downpour" doesn't even begin to describe the experience. Again, my view of the road was completely impaired and visibility was limited to a few feet. There were a few other vehicles on the road, trucks that sped past me, adding spray to the wave of water washing over me. A lone car was my lifeline, my hope, my hero. I followed the taillights of that car, much too closely I know, but mere inches separated the taillights from the rain-out of invisibility. Wherever that car was going, we were going together; if he or she drove into the ditch, I would be the lemming following along.
When the car turned off of the interstate, I did my best to overcome my disappointment. I was on my own now, finding comfort in the strange realization that traveling alone made a collision less likely, at least one that involved another vehicle. Because I was on a schedule, I was determined to keep going. I had, after all, made it this far. It was only when my brave little Dodge Stratus hydroplaned around a curve, doing its best to grip the pavement while being washed away by rivulets of flowing rainwater, that I decided to exit at my next opportunity.
I pulled into the Clinton gas station for another break from the weather. There was no power,but I didn't need to pump gas anyway. Instead, I pulled up right outside the door and ran into the rest room. That brief escape from car to building caused me to be soaked through to the skin. It wasn't easy feeling my way around the pitch black rest room; I was only glad that the station remained open in spite of the power failure. Perhaps the employees did not want to brave the storm themselves and decided to stay put.
After awhile, I was on the road again, the sky again brighter but still cloudy. This time I was not as hopeful; I had been fooled by the brightened sky once before. In retrospect, it was probably good that I had turned the radio off so that I could concentrate on driving. I'm sure that there were tornado warnings all around me and that the announcers and DJ's pressed the message forcefully. Central Illinois is known for tornadoes, and they tend to take them seriously.
I was able to drive the rest of the way to Champaign incident free. Miraculously, I had made it to our meeting place earlier than anticipated. Needing to use the rest-room once again (maybe it was the fear-induced adrenaline), I entered into the building, my still-sodden self being hit by refrigerated air that chilled me to the bone. Knowing that I could not allow myself to freeze to death, and also having no idea which of the many classrooms was hers, I decided to wait for Erin in the car.
Not only had the storm begun yet again, but now the city's emergency siren wailed as the rain pelted sideways into my little sanctuary. The sky was green, the air heavy with pressure. I remember wondering what it would be like if my car blew away with me in it? Would I spin around in the eye of the tornado or just go flying like a missile? Looking outg, it seemed too dangerous to run for cover, so I just took my chances and stayed. It is only since then that I've learned never to stay in a car during a tornado.
I was surprised when Erin ran across the street and jumped into the car. The others in the building tried to stop her, but there was no way she was going to leave her mother in a tornado by herself. Foolish, I know, but when it comes to weather she's like her mother. Like the car I previously followed along the highway, we were in this together. The comfort of the team-effort made all the difference. Strength in numbers became a reality for us. And the tornado was short-lived after all. No harm done, we began what ended up being the long and winding drive to her home. Streets were washed out and viaducts were flooded in every direction, and we detoured out of town and then back in from another direction. Eventually we made it home; until then we had each other. We were worn, but we had made it through, safe and sound.


It seems that every time I drive to Champaign now I run into rain. That's probably not true, but it seems that way. And I know that, when it does rain, I exhibit signs of my own brand of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now even a little bit of rain along the way causes me to panic. Strangely, I don't remember feeling that panic stricken when driving through the '03 storm--God's way of protecting me, I'm sure. I had to keep my wits about me, after all! But in looking back, I wonder how I actually really did it and came through. I am amazed at my own persistence. It was probably stupid to have kept driving, but in many ways I'm glad I did. I proved that I could look danger (even death?!) in the eye and overcome my fears, but that wasn't the point of it, really. The point was that I knew my daughter would be waiting for me, wondering and perhaps worrying if I was okay. She had no cell phone at that time, so I couldn't call her to report my progress or whereabouts. I couldn't make her wait and worry. In my mind, I had no choice but to keep moving forward and so that's what I did.
I've gained a new respect for Mother Nature and her weather. I've also gained a healthy caution regarding life. My risks are more calculated now--not so frivolous. I'm not sure if it's wisdom or cowardice that directs me. I only know that the experience caused something to change in me. Weather, a powerful force, is an agent of change, affecting both the seen and unseen. Things can be damaged and destroyed, but other things blossom as a result. Weather destroys, but then creates new life in it's wake. It takes both storms and sunny days for life to happen.

Friday, July 11, 2008

L is a Funny Letter

My sister-in-law, Laurie, makes me laugh. Not in a mean-spirited, making-fun-of-her way, but in a stand-up-comedian kind of way. Yes, Laurie is quite gifted. A caring and talented nurse, she could easily quit her day job and hit the comedy club circuit. She has a gift for seeing the humor in almost all of life's situations, and she tells and retells her stories, perfecting the timing and hitting the punch lines spot-0n.
It helps that she also has the gift of putting herself in unusual situations. There is hardly ever a dull moment when in her company. A trip to the grocery store can easily become an adventure worthy of its own immortalizing as one of her monologues. You just never know with her.
Is it a coincidence that Laurie and laughter both begin with the letter "L?" I think not! Somehow the letter seems to connect the two in an hysterical symbiosis. Laurie loves to laugh, and she is comfortable making herself the butt of her own humor. She sees life as an adventure to be lived, but not too seriously! She takes risks and, in so doing, has fodder for her story-telling.
I'm glad to have Laurie as a family member. She reminds me, often, not to be so dark and gloomy, not directly, but through making me laugh and inviting me to tell my own stories. In fact, at one time I was more like her. A friend once told me that I, too, had a gift for seeing the humor in everything and that I make her laugh. Lately, I seem to have gotten away from seeing the bright side more than I care to admit. But with Laurie in my life, laughter is never really far away. I can just pick up the phone and be her audience--my own private stand-up show. Life, laughter, love, Laurie..."L" is a funny letter that connects so many Likable things.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Changing Weather

It is gray outside and thunder claps occassionally. It started out as a beautiful morning--mild and sunny. The air smelled fresh and clean. "It's going to be a great day," I thought to myself.
Now, however, it is gray and threatening, dark for this time of the evening. As the thunder continues, I wonder whether or not I should be using the computer. A power outage could cause me to lose this story...Well, I'll take my chances; perhaps it's not meant to be posted after all, but only has value by my contemplation of it all...
I am reminded by Mother Nature once again about how quickly things change. Nature is a constant evolution of all that surround us. The weather, even the landscape, continually changes and evolves. So, too, for all living things.
For man, life is a constant ebb and flow of emotion. One day begins good and may end differently, based on cirumcstances. The only real constant here is change. Change is a sign that we are, in fact, alive! It is not only humankind that changes, but all of life. So why do I hope to be immune from it--always wishing for happiness and peace?
In fact, I lead a charmed life. I want for little. Surely, I have unfulfilled desires, regrets maybe, things that might have been. But generally, life is comfortable. I am fed, I am housed, I am clothed. My children are each fairly successful, each in their own right. Something could come and change all of that in an instant. Something like Hurrican Katrina, perhaps. But, so far, I am blessed, and that hasn't happened. How do the people that experience these disasters learn to cope?
In truth, I have much for which to be grateful. Yes, life is good, if not always happy. I am reminded again of the undercurrent of joy that prevents outer dynamics from changing my mood. Hope does sping eternal; like joy, it is often expressed behind the scenes, keeping one moving forward. In the end, it may be all we have and all that we really need. Once the thunder has subsided and the storm has passed, the sun will rise and shine once again. Another new day will begin, an empty slate, full of possibilities and waiting to be filled.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Baby Watch

My oldest daughter, Erin, is anxiously awaiting the birth of her third baby. July 18th is the date that baby is due, but she is ready for it to happen now. Heavy with child and uncomfortable as a result, her energy level is decreasing. That she has two young daughters to care for contributes to her exhaustion. Kathryn and Lea are lovely little girls, active and engaged in every minute of their little lives! They love to be outdoors, swinging and sliding on their play set, or drawing chalk masterpieces on the driveway.
Erin engages with them regularly. Fortunately, circumstances allow her to be a stay-at-home mom, and she spends most of her day entertaining her daughters. She is creative at thinking up new crafts and activities in which to engage them. Her kitchen and living rooms are galleries for the girls' artwork, carefully displayed so as to be admired by any and all visitors. Three of Kathryn's finger paintings are tastefully framed and hung in the dining area. They are great conversation pieces.
But as the days of summer draw on, her readiness to give birth does as well. I remember those late days of pregnancy: the honeymoon-type excitement is over and now the body just wants to be free again to begin to bounce back into its old shape and form. Just the freedom to sleep comfortably or tie one's own shoes seem to be incredible gifts.
So, in these last few days, we are on baby watch. I call her daily, just to see how that day is going and to reassure her that her lack of energy does not translate into child neglect. She is only tired and for today, the TV might have to be the babysitter so that she can just relax for awhile. When a new baby is being born, everyone sacrifices a little bit, but the mother most of all. The discomfort and dissatisfaction of these last few days may never be completely forgotten, but will fade in comparison to the joy of new life.

Awakening to Reassurance

What a difference a day makes! This morning, the phone rang at 5:00 AM. I was lying bed, languishing in that dazed, not-quite-awake state of being when it happened. Usually when we receive calls at odd hours, it is our daughter, Amy, who lives in Okinawa. Since Japan is 14 hours ahead of us, it is always early morning or middle of the night, Chicago time, when we hear from her.
For the first time in several weeks, she sounded great--healthy and relatively happy. She still wants to transfer out to another base, but she seems as if she is making some adjustments. The fact that her fiance visited her for a couple days over the 4th of July weekend helped with this, I'm sure. It had been several months since they were able to see each other in person, much less hold hands and hug. It was good for both of them, I believe, and so, as a result, it was good for me.
It is the most difficult thing for a mother to see her child, no matter what the age, suffering and unhappy. Especially when there is absolutely nothing that mom can do to provide even comfort, much less real change. The last few phone calls were painful for all of us. The suffering, doubt and overwhelming loneliness were clearly expressed in her words and tone of voice. Hearing her sob into the phone was the worst! I've never felt so completely helpless. If she were in the U.S., I would have jumped on a plane to go and visit her, figuring things out along the way. But to fly to Okinawa is not only cost prohibitive, but prohibited by language and geography as well. Where would I fly to? How far is the base from the airport and how will I get there? Not to mention that you can't just walk onto a military base, "Okay, I'm here for a visit. Let me in!" I resigned myself to the reality that I was stuck at home, worrying about my youngest daughter and her frame of mind.
This morning's call was reassuring, at least for the time being. Things go up and down with her, and tomorrow may bring another wave of depression and loneliness. But today, she is good, life is good...the world is a great place to be. My energy feels restored and my hope re-ignited. Perhaps things are on a permanent upswing. If not, it is days like these that I fall back on, remembering that all things pass in due time. I have great hopes and dreams for this lovely daughter of mine; I hope that one day they will be realized, along with the hopes and dreams that she holds for herself. Right now, that possibility seems promising.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Outside Looking In

It's been several days now that I've felt somehow unreal. I float along, experiencing different challenges, like the Colorado trip, as well as feelings, like sorrow about my daughter. Those challenging times resulted in the needs to focus intensely and to expend bursts of energy that depleted my reserves. Now it seems as if I am looking in, observing each experience from outside of my own body. Taste, smell, hearing, even pain seems somehow muted, as if switched into energy saving mode so as not to be wasteful. No extravagance! I retain both physical senses and emotions, but both are toned way down and add little to the quality of life.
Still, I resolve to go through the motions, working, cleaning the house, paying the bills. Nothing seems that important; it's just there, the daily routine that needs to be done. Perhaps the emotional toll that my daughter's problems have wrought, or perhaps the complete physical exhaustion of the mountain hike have contributed to this. I am de-energized, de-emotionalized, if there is such a thing. Don't get me wrong, I'm not concerned, necessarily. I'm not happy or unhappy, worried or excited. I just am. And right now that seems to be enough.
Perhaps it is the body's way of de-stressing itself from constant turmoil. Just "to be," not to do or to solve or to fix anything. I don't need to have answers at this point in time. It is enough to live with uncertainty, just co-existing with all that happens around me. It is good, for now, I think. But good or not, it's all that I'm capable of for the time being.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Pinacle of Peace

In spite of the physical and mental challenges of the backpacking trip, the views of the Colorado landscape made it all worthwhile. Beautiful vistas, overlooking sparkling lakes, roaring streams and lush green meadows surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks were the reward for enduring the trials of the trail. And the is wonderful to know that there are places in the world that still exist in their purest form, untouched and unspoiled by what mankind considers "progress." Individual insects could be heard buzzing as they gathered nectar and branches made cracking sounds from the wildlife that scurried through the wood. No other sounds existed, except for the occasional airplane that would not even be detected among the noise of the city. There is nothing that I can compare it to; one has to experience it for him or herself.
The days in the wilderness were sunny and hot. Sunscreeen and mosquito repellent both were a must--there's no getting around either one if you want to exeperience even a modicum of comfort. The sun blazed overhead, but the trail also wound its way through shady areas covered by mostly pine trees. We hiked through mud that sucked us in several inches; it took effort to pull one's boot out of the muck for the next step. Several yards later, we were met by snow drifts, some still waste deep and suspect regarding their ability to withstand our weight. Deadfall blocked out path, and we were forced to step or climb over these dead, fallen trees, stacked every which way, like so many pick-up-sticks, on top of each other. Watching out for one another became the order of the day.
Nights in the mountain are clear and cold. Countless stars sparkled overhead, many of them shooting, unimpeded and unfaded by city lights. Frost covered our tarps and sleeping bags as we awoke and the water in our bottles was ice-cold. Our breath hung like clouds in the frosty air up until the time the sun rose and warmed the mountain quickly yet again.
The experience was not for the weak or faint of heart. It took real effort, real strength, inner and outer, to overcome the physical world in it's most natural and undisturbed form. But, upon reaching the ridges that overlook the meadows below, all obstacles are forgotten. We reveled in the beauty of our world, and experienced a sense of peace unparalelled in the civilized world. Here we could connect to nature, to our God, to each other and to ourselves. All outer distractions are forgotten. Though we rested not on the highest peak of the mountain, it was the pinacle of the spiritual experience. Here, God lived, and we were at peace.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Falling Up the Mountain

It was my third fall of the day and the one that almost did me in. The first was just a fall to my knees, skinning them both and depositing some of the small dirt and stone that made up the trail. The second was a slip in the loose dirt, causing me to land dead square on my bottom. The only evidence of the mishap was more loose gravel that had imbedded itself in my right hand as I tried to break the fall. While embarrassing, and requiring assistance to right myself due to the added weight of the backpack, neither fall caused seriouse injury, other than to my pride, of course.
Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. Stepping on a rock that appeared to be firmly packed into the trail, I was caught off guard when the rock dislodged and I fell forward, instantly and firmly, right onto my nose. There was no time to brace myself, no time to cushion this particular fall. Just boom! Right onto the nose, breaking both nose and sunglasses in the sudden impact of that fall. Surprisingly, there was less pain than angst at seeing blood pooling rapidly on the ground, as if being poured from a faucet. "Interesting," I remembered thinking.
My instincts told me to get up, but reason took over and I continued to lay on the ground, awaiting the help of my compatriots, the guides of the trip. Sophia and Amanda, two young ladies the age of my daughters, flew to assist me. Fortunately for me, Amanda is a trained EMT and was able to administer the needed care. A spinal and neck check were completed, to assure that there were no debilitating injuries. Ibuprofen was administered, my bearings gathered and we were back on the trail again.
Had I understood the arduous nature of the trip, I likely would have opted out. But once on the trail, there is no choice but to keep moving forward. Rescue teams only come in the event of serious injury; airlifting only occurs in the event of life-or-death situations. I qualified for neither so I continued: Five days of hiking, first up and then down the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, completing a total of 21 miles of ground was not an easy task for this late middle-ager. But, faced with no choice, I somehow completed it, usually keeping pace with the teens and young adults who comprised the trip.
The fall happened on day one, exactly a week ago today. As I write, I have two black eyes, a cut across my nose from the broken glasses, numerous scrapes, cuts and bruises in various parts of my body. I feel only mild discomfort as a result of my injuries. Mostly, I feel a deep sense of satisfaction at having been challenged--both physically and mentally--and having come through and completed the task as set forth. I may have fallen up the mountain, but I continued forward, overcoming even more difficult obstacles along the way. I probably won't do it again, but the hike was a great reminder that people are often stronger than they believe themselves to be. Faced with obstacles as well as doubts, I somehow endured, overcoming them both. As the Chinese have always believed, crisis equals opportunity.