April Showers

It was a pragmatic matter growing up. There were six of us in a small three bedroom ranch house with one bathroom. We took our showers at night because the bathroom was a critical choke point in the morning, with four kids getting ready for school while trying to get in and out of the bathroom before Dad went in with the newspaper.

From the time i left home for college, that shifted. i took a morning shower. Some days, an early afternoon shower, depending on the start time of my first class, or the degree of hangover i carried on any given day. Not just for cleaning up, it was often necessary to get my eyes opened.

Thirty six years of working in a laboratory or office environment had me starting my day with a shower. As ingrained a habit as any, it took a slight hit at the start of the pandemic when personal hygiene was… well… less critical due to the complete lack of socialization.

Since moving to Stonerbrooke in September, i spend hours each day outside. i became a bit of a recliner potato over the cold months, but as soon as there were two or three warm sunny hours each day, i moved outside. Digging in dirt. When i started, there were garden gloves, but now they only come out when there are thorns or thistles. i added a solid nail brush by the kitchen sink to help scrub my crusty hands when i come in for a water break, but i am now doing dirty labor on a daily basis. For the first time in my life.

Yesterday, i spent several hours with a weed whacker, and then with a cordless sander working on a bridge that needs a new coat of paint. It has been raining a bit, so i was a muck-encrusted mess by dinner time. i took a necessary shower while the brussels sprouts were roasting for dinner.

Getting your hands dirty. Getting your body covered in grime. Getting chunks of unknown crud in your hair. Getting to sleep more easily because your body is just tired.

And unlike a career in research, later senior management – where the single most tangible product from a hard day at the office was often just a powerpoint deck – i can see the positive results of my effort.

A blooming legacy

We make a point of wandering the property every day. Two and a half acres. As the weather warms, we are delighted with new discoveries.

We didn’t just buy a house. We bought a homestead. Jay and Nancy lived here for 52 years. The original house was tiny – maybe 1,000 square feet, three bedrooms, one bathroom. They raised three children in that small house. It wasn’t until after their children moved out that they decided to do a major renovation on the house – adding a massive family room, and an upstairs master suite, with library.

When Nancy developed dementia, Jay did the best he could to care for her, but she was placed in a memory care facility in 2019. He wanted to be with her, and made the decision to sell, and move to a small apartment to be close by.

She was a gardener. As we met our new neighbors, we heard tales of Nancy’s devotion, and generosity. “We only recognized her from behind – she was always digging!” Every property on the street is decorated with hostas, iris, and peonies that she shared as she divided plants.

Nancy died in November. We’ve stayed in touch with Jay – sometimes delivering mail, always taking him cookies, or an occasional hot meal. During a visit to his apartment in January he seemed a little more awkward than usual.

“I have a strange question. I’ve got Nancy’s ashes back. I was wondering if I could take her to the gardens. I don’t know what else to do with her…”

When he called a couple weeks ago, it was one of the first warm days. The winter aconite and snow drops were putting on a dazzling show along the back tree line. “Today is the day. I’ll be over sometime after two. You probably won’t even know I’ve been there…”

We took that to mean he wanted privacy, so we retreated inside the house for the afternoon. We saw his truck across the street later that afternoon, he was likely visiting a neighbor, so we know he’d been by.

With each new discovery, we are just overwhelmed by the beauty. Tiny tulips (species tulips) and the most adorable jonquil (we’ve been calling them ‘dwarf-odills’). Scrawny bushes have burst into bright yellow blooms. Carpets of hyacinth, dotted with clusters of daffodils and narcissus. A friend has described this process – “the property is introducing itself to you.”

And we say “Thank you, Nancy”. Every day.

Days for Girls… and Retired Women.

i’m old. It’s been many years since i’ve dealt with menstruation.* When i was new to the cycle, it was a pain in the ass – heavy, bulky, pads, anchored to elasticized belts that were all we had in the stone ages of the 70’s.

The liberation of tampons found me during high school! “You mean i can go swimming at the lake with my friends this weekend? Hell, yes!”

i was privileged. Globally, it’s not quite that simple.

Such conveniences are not readily available, and there are tremendous cultural barriers. Many girls are stuck at home – missing one week of school each month. Many are STILL forced to resort to rags, mattress stuffing, banana leaves, feathers – whatever is handy to manage menstruation.

Celeste Mergens was working with a family foundation near Nairobi, Kenya in 2008, assisting an orphanage.** She recognized that the options for dealing with periods were limited – she first tried supplying disposable pads, but that it was not viable, or sustainable. Days for Girls was born…

Kits, with cloth-based, pretty, washable, and long-lasting components — with education — were the solution. Since Days for Girls was founded, more than 1 million women and girls have been assisted, in over 125 countries world wide.

What's in a kit

Where do the kits come from? Volunteers. A global network of volunteers, organized in local groups, diligently make the kits to a prescribed standard. Other volunteers are trained to do distribution and education.

i stumbled upon a local group about a year ago. Went to a monthly gathering. Fell in love with the mission.  For two hours each month, i join a diverse group of retired women. The group leader has arranged work stations – cutting, ribbon sealing, folding, packing, grommeting. The sewing is done off-site during the month by a cadre of skilled volunteers (not me).

workstations

And now i am the Grommet Queen.

Happy chatter. “How are the kids?” “Has Marge recovered from the fall?” “Did you get tickets to the game?” But mostly we are focused on our tasks. i measure, punch holes, set up the grommet thingie, apply grommets. Repeat.

home of the grommet queen

i was happy this month – in 2 hours i completed 60 pad holders. As i make them, i offer kind thoughts and encouragement to the woman or girl who will someday use this as part of her kit. “You go, li’l sister! Being a woman should not get in your way.”

There was a time in my life where i enjoyed being in a leadership role. Helping re-start a bicycle advocacy group, being on a high-visibility board or two, being a mouthpiece for a cultural organization. What i’ve learned is that there is deep joy, and satisfaction, in being nothing more than a useful pair of hands.

i can’t fix all that is wrong in the world. All i can really do is chip away at it… one grommet at a time.

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*After breeding, i opted for a tubal ligation in 1999. Ten years later, i chose uterine ablation – a procedure which fries the lining of the uterus, eliminating the montly cycle. Back then, i was recently divorced, and decided that the annoyance of a period would be a buzzkill to my aggressive “dating”… (cough, cough). Menopause, for me, was a year of being hyper-emotional, with the occasional ‘thrash night’ in bed, due to overheating. 

** More about Celeste, and Days for Girls at their website.

You should be dancin’…

“There are nine members of the family – we will need two cars to get them to their medical appointment. Can you help?”

For the past several years, i’ve been supporting the mission of our local Refugee Resettlement program. The vast majority of arrivals in my city are from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Most of my transportation runs are to get 2-3 family members to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for official ID cards, or taking one person to a medical appointment.

The primary language in DRC is French – and mine is pretty rusty. i’ve learned a couple words in Swahili, but my comprehension is non-existent. So i start with music – something upbeat, fun, targeting Beatles, Michael Jackson, and other international pop icons. As we get settled in the car, i tell them “i’m going to play some music!” and then we roll.

It seems to work.

Many times, while traveling abroad, i’ve been in a situation where i’m in a taxi and do not speak the language of the driver. It’s a little more comfortable if the driver is playing music, and happily bopping along. The best way to crush the awkward silence.

So i sing. i car dance.

Many arrivals from the DRC have been waiting a long time to get here. They have experienced things that i cannot comprehend. But my job is transport. i do not ask. Drive the car, and be-bop to the tunes. Assist with the paper work, pulling out the ol’ Google Translator as needed.

My SUV will comfortably transport 7 adults. For the large family transport run, it was me and 6 others, ranging in age from 4 to 19 years old. Mom, Dad, and the adorable 2 year old went with the other driver.  The oldest daughter rode up front with me, and the rest of the children were tucked into the back.

Her English was pretty good. When i said “i like to play music” she said “That’s good!” and away we went! It was early October, and when “Thriller” came on, it seemed that even the younger members of the family recognized it.

“Dance Party!” i announced – and we all hit it hard, while cruising downtown toward the public health clinic for their appointment. Smiles, laughs, expert moves, and genuine curiosity about the crazy white-haired granny gettin’ down with her bad self behind the wheel of the Ford truck!

The original plan was to have another driver pick them up in a couple hours, but i let the program coordinator know that i was available that afternoon if needed. He sent me back downtown to assist with pick up. My heart turned to mush when i was greeted in the lobby by smiling, dancing children.

We car danced the entire drive home. And i cried a little after i said goodbye.

When i first started supporting the program, i wanted to only do housing set up, or collect items to support arriving refugees. i was afraid to work directly with the clients. Reluctantly, i agreed to start doing client transport – because that was the greatest need.

Getting outside of my comfort zone has led to the most rewarding volunteer gig i’ve ever had…

Multicolored futuristic wings on white background

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

 

Balancing Act

Balance. With each passing day, it becomes more important.

If i lose my balance at this age, i can break a hip. Falls are the leading cause of accidental death for the elderly. As with any other skill, it must be practiced – which explains why i watch the news on TV while perching on one leg. Frequently screaming obscenities at the television when the news is particularly stupid. Balance is more challenging for me when i’m standing still.

But i have not been standing still. So far this year, i’ve been out of town, or out of the country, for 18 weeks. Given that i haven’t poked my head out here since August, here’s a glimpse of what i’ve been up to since my last post.  If you want more detail, just ask! Hoping to have some time next month to write more…

  • It’s not just about balance, but flexibility. Studley’s daughter, Pixie, moved to Alaska last spring. We decided to visit her before it became too cold and dark. Two weeks of exploring a few tiny corners of the state left us both ready to go back for an extended visit!  In two weeks we barely scratched the surface. We also deployed our small town tactic – stop by the local VFW or American Legion hall for a beer. Drink cheap, talk to locals, and find out what’s going on in town.
  • Speaking of what’s going on… We went to our first regional “burn” – like Burning Man, but on a much smaller scale. We felt quite at home among the 500 or so burners assembled at the site of a reclaimed strip mine. My days of sleeping on dirt are mostly behind me, so we brought our teardrop camper. One of the requests by the organizers was that we find a way to disguise the camper to better blend into the temporary tent city. i think we did ok…
  • Speaking of camping… We’ve been off in the woods a bit this autumn. That little metal egg keeps us plenty warm down to freezing. The bourbon helps, too.
  • Speaking of bourbon… Haven’t seen much of the extended family this year – in large part due to me being gone for months at a time. When my Florida sister, T, was selected for a significant honor this month, it presented an opportunity to reconnect. Oldest sister, S, has had a tough year – she beat back another round of cancer (Lymphoma), and finally retired. We decided to grab some cheap tickets and head south. A lot of water under these bridges, but there indeed be bridges. Baby steps.
  • Speaking of babies, i miss the crap out of these two li’l critters. Max is 3, and Ellie is now 1, and they are so much fun! But The Boy and his family are 1,000 miles away. That’s harder than i expected. Even more fun? The Girl is due to shell out her first child in a few weeks – which means i’m packing a large suitcase, and preparing for a trip to Turkey (the country, not the poultry). My third grandcritter is about to arrive – and will be living 5,000 miles away.

There’s more. So much more… but i seem to either have time to live hard, or time to write. For the moment, it’s going to be “live hard”. Operation “Speedball to the Finish Line” is well underway…

Profundio del Dia

After crossing the Pyrenees, we deliberately took it slow for the first five days of our walk. Training on the trail, we began to settle into a natural rhythm – wake, pack, walk, breakfast, walk, coffee, walk, lunch, walk, find a bed, wash clothes, nap, dinner, sleep.

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Sometimes, we walked in silence, immersed in our own thinking. Sometimes we’d talk. Early on we’d realized that there were a lot of people walking El Camino sorting out serious life issues, seeking answers. We were out there as part of our transition to ‘retired’, but not dealing with anything particularly heavy. Still expecting some insights, self-discovery, we’d joked about stumbling upon our “Profundio del Dia” – “Depth of the Day” as we went about our walk.

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We met Barb on our first day. She was walking El Camino to shake off some demons, and reboot her life. She holds multiple world records for power lifting – and is quite strong* –  but still struggled with the endurance required for walking uphill.  Since we were going slow, we invited her to hang with us for a few days until she got her trail legs. We’d start off together with a rough idea of where we’d end up for the day, and then meet up along the trail – walking together, yet apart.

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Third day in, our morning coffee stop was at an outdoor cafe. Just as we sat down, a large group of boisterous Spaniards descended upon the courtyard. Whooping and hollering, the men swamped the cafe proprietor, and filled the tables. We finished up, deciding to get on our way to get ahead of their large, loud pack.

We failed.

They were everywhere – yapping on cellphones, singing, talking at extreme volume! They’d fragmented into smaller groups, and we couldn’t get ahead of them all! Destroying any chance of a peaceful, meditative walk, we finally just gave up – stopping in a field, we waited to get the racket ahead of us.

Rolling into our destination village for the day, we spotted another outdoor cafe on the edge of town. And there they were! Over two dozen loud men – singing, hollering, and infesting the entire outdoor area like giant locusts in futbol gear!

daisyfae: If those noisy bastards are staying here tonight? i’ll keep walking! i don’t care how far it is to the next village, i’m not bunking with them tonight!

We decided to at least stop for lunch. Walking into the cafe, we found Barb, already having coffee and a snack.

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Barb: Do you see this group of men?

daisyfae: Oh, hell yeah! We see ’em.

Barb: They saved my life today! i was struggling to get up that last hill, crying. They surrounded me. That one? With the bright yellow shirt? He took my pack and carried it for me. And that one? The older man? He walked beside me, helping me keep my head up to make it easier to breathe. They don’t speak any English, but it didn’t matter! They are amazing.

daisyfae: ….

On this day, Profundio del Dia slapped us both upside the head: One man’s asshole is another man’s savior.

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* Training to lift heavy things does not include any cardio training. In fact, she told us that cardio reduces strength, and when training she would avoid it like the plague! 

El Camino – The Highlights

We started walking from St. Jean Pied de Port, France on 20 April. Thirty six days later, we walked in to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, traveling 497 miles (799 km) westward.

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Other than 5 miles (8 km) on horseback, 12 miles (20 km) in a taxi, and 110 miles (180 km) by bus from Burgos to Leon, we have traveled on these feet.

We walked 370 miles (590 km).

We slowed down. We rarely reserved beds in advance, trusting that we’d find something. We woke at 0600, walked for over an hour before coffee or breakfast. We learned to share space with other people – a LOT of other people. We met people from around the world – sharing laughter, tears, a meal, a few days walking together – glimpses of our lives.

We learned to appreciate every moment of peace. We ate when we were hungry, rested when we were tired. We redefined luxury – to include walking in solitude, wooden bunk bed ladders, and cloth sheets on a decent mattress. We carried in our packs a bare minimum of belongings – nothing unused. We washed our clothing by hand. We learned the power of restoration that comes through sleep. We lost an appreciable amount of weight without being hungry. We are harder to kill.

We accepted that the most environmentally responsible option for clearing our sinuses does not involve tissues. We saw enough spindly-legged old men in their undercrackers shuffling about hostels to last us a lifetime.* While many peregrinos leave their fecal matter a reasonable distance** from the trail, others seemed to have no problem leaving it mid-trail, for the rest of us to admire. We learned a teeny bit of Spanish – and although we didn’t always get it right, it was universally appreciated.

After five weeks, we thought we were done walking – even though the daily routine was deeply ingrained.

Arriving in Santiago last Friday, with a week to kill, we hopped a bus for the coast. We spent four days farting around by the sea at “the end of the world” – Fisterre and Muxia. But we were restless… We didn’t feel right NOT walking.
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When we arrived back in Santiago today, our plan was to take the airport bus to our hotel. It was only 12 km – so we walked it – in a chilly, misty drizzle.

It felt good…

Tomorrow, we’re off to fart around in Barcelona with an old friend, who has planned an intense repatriation experience.

And then home, for what lies ahead…

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* One. Exactly one of these is enough to last a lifetime. We saw dozens more.
** If you see an area adjacent to the trail littered with toilet paper? Probably not the best place to have a picnic. Humans can be really filthy animals…

i go out walkin’….

It’s been less than a year since retirement. Nine months. We did not want to spend the first year getting oriented to our new lifestyle. Reflecting on past careers. Sifting through travel guides. Let ourselves get mired in “analysis paralysis.”

We decided to put a virtual taser to the gonads and shake shit up.

The key question we’ve set out to answer — “how do you travel when you have more time than money?” We’ve been fortunate to cover a lot of miles – we want to change how we go.

Shortly after retiring, we stumbled our first few miles on the Appalachian Trail last August, thinking that backpacking  would be the obvious means to travel on the cheap. What we quickly determined is that we were in no shape to tackle such adventures. At least not right away. i also was reminded how much i despise sleeping on dirt.

Studley’s daughter, Pixie, was very supportive of our pursuit of an adventurous travel habit. We discussed other options – including El Camino de Santiago de Compostela. “From what I have heard, one of the hardest things about doing the Camino is staying sober – they serve a LOT of Spanish wines during the meals there…”

Studley and i exchanged a glance – and a high five. “Drunk walk Spain? Yeah. We can do that…” We started planning our camino. While still chasing other adventures, staying in Turkey for a month, and living our regular lives, El Camino became a quest.

We started training. And by “training” i mean “walking” – because it’s really just a walk. Doing 30 half-marathons back to back, however, will wear down your body, so we have been walking. A lot. We’ve walked in rain. In snow. On the one warm day this season, we walked 12 miles. Has it been enough? Probably not. But here we are, about to get on an airplane.

i’ve got several friends who have taken on this pilgrimage. They have been our primary resource in thinking through what to pack. My cousin (who has walked El Camino twice) did a gear shakedown – we were pretty proud to show her that we’d gotten out packs down to 15 pounds.

Cousin L [pulling a tiny travel mug from Studley’s pack]: Isn’t that adorable. You know, they DO have cups in Spain.

gear

She was brutal, questioning each item. With her help, we further lightened our loads. Base weight of my pack is 10 pounds (4.5 kg). This is a very good start. With water and consumables, i’ll be at about 13 pounds (7 kg).

One of the most challenging aspects has been preparing to be GONE for so long. Bill paying, mail, home maintenance, appointments. All of this must be squared away so we can disappear. Taking my cat to go stay with a friend was difficult. This is also training…

We’ve walked. We’ve packed, repacked, and packed again.  There’s not much more to do but get to the airport. And start walking…

Rain Gear

For decades my “power word” has been “onward”. When i felt mired in the muck of life, or quicksand of toxic relationships, i have grabbed that word as my shield and plowed ahead. Within Camino culture, there is an ancient equivalent – “Ultreia” (old Spanish spelling – “Ultreya”). Rough translation – ‘Onward! Beyond!’

 

Improvisational dance

May, 2004:  The Girl had signed up for Semester at Sea, sailing around the world on a cruise ship full of undergrads and a few brave faculty members. There was to be a “parent meet up” opportunity somewhere along the way – for that trip, it was Vietnam.

Traveling solo, i joined a group of about 50 wealthy white people* in Bangkok, and we made our way to Vietnam to meet the ship as it pulled into port. We had a couple days in Bangkok, touring together, which told me i was sort of the odd (wo)man out – only a couple of us on the trip without mates, no interest in shopping, i was pretty content to just chill on my own.

After we met up with the students, we had time in Ho Chi Minh City to explore. The tour company handling the parents put us on buses, and we went to various museums. It was on this afternoon i met two couples who were not like the others – a brother and sister, traveling with their spouses, they had been students with Semester at Sea back in the 70’s. They were on the trip to meet with a son/nephew and do some exploring of their own while halfway around the world.

We were headed back to the hotel and the bus driver stopped at a Vietnam Airlines storefront. The two couples said their goodbyes and prepared to hop off the bus – “We’re going to see if we can find some cheap flights to Halong Bay while we’re here. Wander a bit, then maybe fly over to Phuket for some diving before we head home…”

i looked at The Girl after they departed. “i would love to be able to travel like that! Just make it up as you go! i don’t think i’ll ever have that confidence!”

February, 2018: Driving by the Izmir train station.“You know, next time we’re here, maybe we should hop a train? Let’s just see where we can go…”

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* The demographic on the ship was heavily skewed to kids with money. The Girl managed to find her way into the tribe of the hippies on board. She often referred to the ship as the “Aryan Nation Love Boat”. 

Fierce…

She was born and raised in a small village on the Black Sea, but married and moved to a larger city years later. Ayse is 65 years old, and a widow. We met her while visiting friends of The Girl.

The Girl’s friend, Sevda is married to Pete (from the US). They had a son, Ender, about a year ago, and Ayse spends time with them, helping with the little boy, and managing the household. Ayse has four daughters, three (including Sevda) are engineers, and the fourth is trained as a social worker.

We are working on learning Turkish, but our skills are rudimentary at best. With translation assistance from Sevda and The Girl, i told Ayse that she should be very proud of raising four smart, professional daughters. “In my family, everyone must do something.”

Ayse did not go to college herself, but clearly understands the value of education.

As we picked up Ender’s books, we started sounding out words – numbers, colors, animals. She looked at Sevda with a very determined look on her face, threw a side eye toward Pete, and spoke at length in Turkish.

Sevda said she is going to study English, and was inspired to tackle it because we were trying to learn Turkish. She also said that our Turkish is already better than Pete’s, and thinks he should make the same effort after living in Turkey for so long!

Ayse is a thin woman, wearing modest clothing*, taking the occasional break to go out on the porch and smoke. Her eyes are sharp, and her face looks younger to me than her 65 years. Despite Sevda telling us that she has had trouble with her back, she picks up Ender with ease, slinging him onto her shoulders, her back, turning him a million different ways as she carries him from room to room.

“She could juggle babies! Wow!”

Sevda showed me her garden, which includes herbs, peppers, greens. “That’s an olive tree! We just had a harvest, and made olive oil! Pete and I were picking them from the low branches, but my mother climbed up the tree! She has practically build this entire garden herself! I’ll send home some of the tomato sauce she made this summer!”

As we said our goodbyes**, Ayse invited us to visit us in her home town when we visit again. i told her that we’d help her practice her English if she’d help us practice our Turkish!

In the car on the drive home, i was commenting on how fierce Ayse is – “She is extraordinary! She is fierce, smart – and can juggle babies! How cool is that?”

The Girl seemed a little sad as she said “Yeah… I think she’s sick. Cancer. Not sure of the details, but it’s not a great prognosis…”

baby juggling

Image found here. A famous ‘baby juggler’ statue in Oslo. Who knew?

* In Izmir, women are free to choose to wear modest clothing (hijab) or not. Based on several visits here, and observation, i’d say around a quarter to a third of women – of all ages – make this choice. 

** Saying goodbye in Turkish culture takes approximately 30-45 minutes. There are a dozen words for “goodbye” and the process is complicated, but heart felt. We are still getting the hang of cheek-kissing (right side, left side, right side again for family… i think…)