Friday, February 21, 2014

Eyes on the Horizon

“Try to look at the horizon most of the time you are walking and just glance down now and then.” Astra, my Feldenkrais teacher, gave me that advice at my last lesson before I came to Tybee. I knew she meant the literal definition of horizon (skyline). But I immediately thought about the figurative one (outlook or perspective). Both definitions were absent in my current state. Her words became the starting place in my effort to rebuild the confidence I lost when I hit the ground and broke my shoulder a year ago. Ever since then I had walked with my eyes down to see what hazards awaited my footsteps.

In December during a routine appointment with my doctor (Liz), I shared with her the aspects of my trauma that were not limited to the injuries. I told her that I was unable to let go to let go of the feeling that I was no longer safe. It was manifest in a constant awareness of all the risks and dangers of being an older woman living alone. Most hazards in my daily life were things I had already thought about and in some cases developed habits that might protect me. Now new rituals I maintained to feel safe had slowed me down or affected my decisions. Liz listened to my summation of concerns and then said that I was dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although I knew my small trauma was not in the same category as the terrors of war, I agreed with her and added that the accident with the car and my decision to curtail my driving had exacerbated it. I had recognized early on that there was a quality of stress attached to my small trauma that was unlike anything I could remember.

Right after I fell, I thought I would never come back to Tybee alone. When I told friends I doubted I’d go back the usual answer was, “You have to get back on the horse.” Knowing there was some merit in that maxim and wanting to avoid the coldest part of winter, I made the decision to return. In order to feel safe, I invited various family members and friends to join me on Tybee. My apprehensions and fixation on potential dangers did not seem normal to me, and I expected to be able to work through it on my own once I was back in this charming little town.

There were two blocks of time during my six weeks on Tybee when I would be alone, and as I anticipated what I dubbed the dark days, I started to think of all the fearless women I have known who lived alone as widows for long periods of time: my mother (nineteen years), my mother-in-law (eighteen), my grandmother  (twenty-two), and numerous older friends. The women I spend the most time with in in Celo include a half dozen widows living alone. Since the life expectancy of women continues to exceed males in our county—and most of the world—I knew I had millions of counterparts out there. I felt the tendrils of the trauma loosen a little as I recognized how silly my vigilance had become. Hazards and risks are legion as we grow older and letting them rule your life stifles your joy.

I began to write about how my female forebears managed old age, starting with my mother. I remembered taking a walk with her when she was ninety. She was not well, but whenever she felt up to it, she walked around the block. I took her arm as she started out with a good stride and a quicker pace than I expected. Sensing my surprise she said, “I try to walk as fast as I can because it gives me energy and makes me feel younger.” As I revisited all my memories of my pantheon of strong women, I was struck by their resilience, courage, and expectation that life would go on as usual. Every one I examined in my mind had a strong spiritual side. I began to look forward to the days alone and felt ready to let go of my fear of falling again. When the time came, those dark days were full of sunshine and free of apprehension.

If there’s no one around to hear me, I like to sing when I walk. One of those mornings I burst out singing what I could remember of the ending of a song about confidence from Sound of Music. The character of Maria was on her way to be a governess to six motherless children, and she was trying to buck herself up by listing all the great things she was going to do for them and then she sang this verse about confidence:

I have confidence in sunshine

I have confidence in rain

I have confidence that spring will come again

Besides which you see I have confidence in me.*

It occurred to me that all my life I had depended on my feet to adjust to changing surfaces, my balance to keep me upright, and my legs to compensate for any hitches. Couldn’t I restore that confidence in the functioning of my own body? Two weeks ago I slowly began to increase the length of time that I looked to the horizon before glancing down. It’s good to do that when you are on an island. There is often something very beautiful or peaceful on that skyline and it’s easier to locate than it is in the mountains. One morning it was layers or bands of sunrise colors and another it is was a line of choppy sea with bits of white foam.

I’ve increased my walking, done my exercises, made my arms slightly stronger with the weights and the TheraBand. All of that is good, but what matters most is that welcome moment I meant it, when I sang out “I have confidence in me.”

*Music and Lyrics by Richard Rogers

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Southern Storm and Northern Memories

Just after my third birthday

Glenside, Pennsylvania 1941
School is closed, and the snow is just perfect for sledding. The Abington Township plows start with the most-used roads. For at least a day the Roberts Avenue hill in is closed to traffic and the local kids show up with sleds. I am nine years old and dancing about with joy as I eagerly wiggle into my snowsuit, scarf, hat, mittens, and galoshes. Almost waddling as I try to keep up with my brother David to the top of the hill, I drag my sled behind me. The downhill run is steep at the top with some gentle curves and it levels out slowly at the bottom allowing for a safe ending. I’ve been sledding since I was three and know how to steer and stop. It’s hard work trudging back to the top but the fast ride down is worth it for several trips until the melting snow makes my mittens damp, the tips of my fingers get cold, and I’m aware that there is snow in my galoshes. I start to think of our warm apartment, dry socks, and Mother’s hot cocoa. David and I head home, flopping down on the sled whenever there is even a short downhill opportunity.

Some twenty-five years later Bill and I moved to Glenside to for three years so I could help care for my father. We bought a house on Roberts Avenue around the corner from my parents. The children went to the same school I had attended. They loved the winters especially because we had just returned to Pennsylvania after two years in North Carolina and three in Guatemala. The heavy snowfalls of their early childhood were almost forgotten. The township was no longer closing part of the avenue to traffic for a day, but Kevin and Robin remember the fast, steep hill. The assembled kids would post someone to watch for cars so the others could sled. Melissa stayed closer to home humming Bill Cosby's "na-na-na-na-na-na-naaaaah" from his Go-kart sketch as she rode her sled.  When ice storms turned Roberts Avenue into a temporary rink the three of them went ice skating with their father. I was happy to follow in my mother’s footsteps and stay inside to bake cookies and make the cocoa.

Tybee Island, Georgia 2014
As the Weather Channel and local TV news gave lengthy instructions to citizens of Savannah and surrounding towns like Tybee about preparations for Winter Storm Leon and possible power outages, I decided to prepare by taking Nigel for a long walk. I imagined we’d be stuck inside for a few days. It was already blustery and chilly but the sidewalks were full of other dog walkers, and every one was calling out, “Are you ready for the storm?” Mine was the only down coat among others dressed in layers and several people—guessing I was a snowbird—stopped to say there had not been any snow in Georgia since 1989. Perhaps they were disappointed that here on the island we only got the wintry mix. My niece Adrienne had been with me for five days and helped me lay in food supplies and candles. We filled pitchers and basins with water and charged the cell phones. Before we went to bed she had a call that her Wednesday morning flight home to DC was cancelled. Finally she was given a seat on a flight later in the day. The taxi driver arrived to pick her up in a monstrous SUV. The combination of the frigid temperatures, wintry mix and freezing rain for twenty hours caused many bridges to freeze and the taxi had to turn back from one of them and try another route.

Nigel doesn’t like any rain—especially freezing rain—but during the worst of it when I forced him to go out, he flew around the perimeter of the fenced yard and marked all the usual spots. Then he raced to the door to be let back in to the warmth of gas logs. Reports from Celo were far more severe, and I received several emails and calls congratulating me for having headed south. The problems with snow in Atlanta and other southern cities dominated the news and stirred my winter memories so I got out my notebook and began to write.

After nearly three weeks of family company, I was alone for five days. Until the remnants of the storm passed by (about two days) I chose to stay inside, grateful to be safe with no power outage. Clearly I feel more vulnerable and have been thinking about advice of Brene Brown who studies that subject. She urges us to have the courage to work with our vulnerability, and believes that the struggle will make us strong.  Older people are often sarcastic when they use the phrase “golden years.” I’ve done it myself. But there is gold to be mined not only in the struggles, but also in friendship, caring, and our wonderful brains, which—if we are lucky—store a lifetime of memories. While the storm covered my rented deck with pellets of ice I was a little girl on a sled flying down Roberts Avenue and thinking about cocoa.