Embracing Now

This is a meditation about floundering and about renewing connections—with memories, dreams and joy, courage, and loved ones on the Other Side.  If you don’t wish to read the entire essay, then choose the last section because it may offer comfort and assurance if you are missing people dear to you.

Returning to the Patio

I’m sitting on my patio for the first time since sweet Mother and I were able to sit here together.  Because of regrets, I have resisted enjoying the patio since Mother’s passing.  But now I seem to be here with the three of us—Mother, Daddy, and me.  The birds are singing for us, and although it’s already July—yesterday was the 4th—the bird chorus sounds like dawn in spring.  While the air is almost hot, a little breeze makes the morning inviting.

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The summer that I moved here, the summer of 2011, Mother and I often sat on our patio together.  We used the antique wicker chairs on the patio then.  I’ve since had them repainted and moved inside to preserve them; they were in Mother’s girlhood home.  Four years ago, I bought two pseudo-wicker chairs from Target to use outdoors.  This morning is the first time I’ve sat in either of them.

Wicker chairs

On that summer I moved to our apartment, I often sat on the patio as I wrote on the small, inexpensive notebook computer that I’m using now.  Mother and I also sat outdoors into the night, past dark, talking and being together.  And the patio takes me back into our screened porch at 113 Rockingham Drive, where Daddy loved to do his writing, and where all three of us ate countless summer dinners and then sat together as the insect chorus tuned up and swung into their full-throated renditions.

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Holding Back, Weighted Down

In much the way that I’ve waited to sit on the patio, I’ve been waiting to begin life.  Yet I’m already what most would consider old.  If I were to be the subject of a news story, I’d be called an “elderly woman.”  I don’t feel elderly, and except for my wrinkles, I don’t look elderly.  I’m blessed to be physically agile and quick, in spite of my limited store of energy, a lifelong limitation.  It seems as though life was fresh—a bud just opening—and then, bang, it was two-thirds over, at least.  What am I waiting for?

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Even though I’ve been retired for a little over five years now, I’ve let myself feel weighted down with “shoulds.”  Almost all of these shoulds are things I like to do or at least value, but there have been such a host of them that many days, and especially evenings and into the night and on to early morning, I have sat in paralysis, wishing I could or would move forward.

You’d think I would have figured it out before this morning that I can, right now, begin living the life I want to lead—that living life the way I choose does not require that I first master and fulfill everything on my ideal to-do list to prove my worthiness.  And when I speak of living the life I want to lead, I’m not suggesting that problems won’t appear—health, financial, social; mice in the kitchen; who knows what.  Rather, I’m speaking of my attitude toward each day, toward each moment of the day.

Turning Blessings into Joy

I have so many blessings, including wonderful friends and enticing interests.  I love to take classes, especially in French and Italian.  I do love to write, in spite of writing’s smothering shadow and sometimes-burning sunshine in my life because of the power I’ve given writing to tell me whether or not I am sufficient.  I love my apartment—the apartment that was first my mother’s and then ours together—although I see so much that needs doing to return it to its loveliness.  I want to play my piano and flute, learn to play the dulcimer and ukulele (both of which have sat waiting for me for years), make more bead necklaces.  I have lines to master for the play that I’m in.  And on and on.  But I’ve let my interests kidnap my peace of mind because they became expectations rather than hobbies.

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When I was merely “middle aged,” I daydreamed about someday having a small cottage.  I’d sit on the comfortable couch in the living room, feeling cozy and reading books.  I don’t own a cottage, but I live in a cozy apartment.  It needs a big dose of my love to rise to its full potential, but I can return to loving it immediately.  And that is what I am doing this morning by sitting on the patio and writing.

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My mother’s apartment at Christmas 2010, eight months before we began sharing the apartment

Getting rid of the shoulds, I can relish each moment of the day: making my simple meals in the kitchen, turning on the computer to see what interesting e-mails have appeared, reading, meditating, writing without letting the shadow of judgment take away the nourishing light and air, doing chores, greeting neighbors, playing music, even paying bills, which after all are a sign of my blessings.  If I’m not worried about being insufficient, I can relish what I have and do.  I can shed the fear that has continued to bind me, even as my world of blessings offered itself to me.

Choosing Contentment

As I’ve often told myself and others, part of the reason that I had a thoroughly rewarding three weeks in Italy several years ago is that I decided ahead of time to find everything about the trip interesting and to have fun no matter what.  And I did, in spite of a few days of upset when a traveling companion and I clashed (we soon parted ways), a national train strike that threatened to strand me alone in Naples when I needed to be in Pisa, and a bad case of sunburn and hives (from mosquito bites) decorating my face.  Nevertheless, I was massively happy in Italy.

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Mount Vesuvius, near Naples 

And one reason for that happiness was that I had decided ahead of time to be happy.  Throughout the trip I also released my normal shoulds: I simply lived.  Everyday life usually offers more challenges than even strike-laden travel, but the principle, I believe, holds true: Being content and serene are as much a state of mind as a state of external reality.  I now choose contentment and serenity.  And I will do my best to maintain this choice when true hardships come.

Hearing an Answer to My Prayer

Although over the last couple of days I had one of my confidence meltdowns (since passed), I have a new profound reason for experiencing contentment and serenity.  In spite of many signs from my dear ones since their passing from this life, I had been feeling alone and even uncertain that my past experiences of our ongoing connection were real.  I prayed for a new sign and wished for the kind of irrefutable direct communication that a few people have known.  And then my prayer was answered.

I am playing Eliza Doolittle in a much-cut-down version of My Fair Lady.  (A chorus will be singing the songs, although I will sing along.)  To help me learn my part, I recorded my lines and the lines surrounding mine into a digital recorder.  Then, using a line in, I transferred the digital recording to my PC.  I opened my recording in iTunes and also copied it to my iPod, for use on my evening walks. The first time I listened to the recording on the computer, I was astounded to hear, behind my spoken words, a voice softly singing, “on the plain, on the plain,” and then more clearly, “in Spain, in Spain.”

When I made the recording, I did not own the movie or soundtrack, and I did not sing; I only spoke the words from the printed script.  And the singing voice is not mine.  To make sure I wasn’t mistaken in that belief, I tried transferring a new recording from the digital recorder to the computer.  During that transfer, I sang vigorously; none of my singing registered in the transferred recording, not a peep.  Interestingly, the singing voice that I hear when I listen to the recording on the computer (and on my iPod) is not present on the original digital recording, only on the recording after it had been transferred to the computer.  On the computer and iPod, I eventually discovered a softer addition: a few notes sung just after I mention the song “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.”  I’d not noticed those notes at first because they are faint—but absolutely present.

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My mother, Doris Burgess (later Doris Burgess Hayek), was in the cast for this production at Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College (now Eastern Kentucky University).

In this life, my mother had a beautiful voice.  Daddy said hers was the most beautiful soprano he’d ever heard.  Mother was also a truly talented actress, and she loved the stage.  How appropriate that she would answer my prayer for a tangible sign by singing a few notes from the play that I’m in.  I am blessed by this gift beyond words.  I think that Daddy, too, had a hand in making the gift possible.  Mother and Daddy are my universe, always and forever.  And each time I hear that pretty voice singing, “in Spain, in Spain,” I am comforted that we truly are together in the universe, even now.

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If you are interested in afterlife communication, you might like to read the following:
Answers about the Afterlife: A Private Investigator’s 15-Year Research Unlocks the Mysteries of Life after Death, by Bob Olson
Afterlife Communication: 16 Proven Methods, 85 True Accounts, edited by R. Craig Hogan
(The first chapter in this collection is “Voices of People in Spirit Recorded on a PC,” by Sonia Rinaldi.)
Through the Darkness, by Janet Nohavec
(In this memoir, Janet Nohavec, a former Roman Catholic nun, tells of her experiences with those in spirit.  I have spoken with her and find her impressively credible.)
Hello from Heaven: A New Field of Research – After-Death Communication Confirms That Life and Love Are Eternal, by Bill Guggenheim and Judy Guggenheim

Emily’s Summer Evening

Here is another of my short stories about an older woman who is determined to stay fully involved with life, in spite of the challenges.  I envision Montreal as the setting for the story.

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View from a Montreal restaurant, with McGill University in the distance

Emily felt a little stiff as she climbed the steps to the restaurant, but she made a point of keeping up with the young couple ahead of her.  Saturday evenings were lovely at the restaurant.  Musicians came to entertain the patrons.  It was only a cafeteria, but a nice one with wholesome food.  Emily liked cafeterias because she could eat just what she wanted and not feel self-conscious about staying long after she’d finished her meal.

Two young men played flute and guitar duets.  Some of the melodies were familiar, though she didn’t know the titles of most of them.  The traffic on the street below was muted; the melodies drifted above the soft clattering of dishes and whispered conversations.  The flute player looked like the sort of young man she’d have liked for a grandson.  The smile he gave the audience between pieces was not conceited, and his flute had a sweet tone.  If she had been young, she would have hoped he’d notice her.

Over the musicians was a garish painting of a woman with two heads.  The pictures in the restaurant changed every few months.  Emily studied them to see if any would speak to her, but most were hard to understand.  Sometimes she could admire the colors or a whimsical figure.  Both faces of the two-headed woman grimaced, although one was young and beautiful.  The artist must have been very angry, thought Emily.

Emily placed her book and umbrella conspicuously on the table so no one would take her seat while she went for a second cup of tea.  She always had three cups of tea with her dinner.  Her little rituals, like the sliver of pie with the third cup, were part of the joy.  “Don’t you feel guilty taking up a whole table?” her neighbor Laura had asked recently.  Emily had told Laura she’d feel more guilty not getting out to enjoy life—and what was she supposed to do, stand all through her meals?

At a nearby table, a young family with two children finished their dinner.  The girl and boy had started a game of rock-paper-scissors while their parents listened to the music.  Emily had played the game when she was a girl, all those years before.  The woman was sturdy, not beautiful but healthy and self-possessed.  Her husband watched her as she watched the musicians.  The little boy, the younger of the children, whispered to his mother, and the family cleared their table and left.  Emily saw them pass on the sidewalk below, each child on a parent’s shoulders.

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Rock-paper-scissors is an old and universal game.  Here children in Myanmar are playing rock-paper-scissors.  Photograph by Mosmas – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

Three girls sitting in a corner of the room stared worshipfully at the young musicians.  One of the girls was heavy, with long dark hair; she wore a startlingly skimpy pink top over her jeans.  Her companions were slim and attractive, a gift of their youth.  Emily wished the heavy girl would realize that she was lovely, too; it pained Emily to see young people trying too hard to be accepted.

Among the many couples were a man and woman of nearly her own age.  The man had plenty of white hair; Emily liked a good head of hair on a man.  The woman was smartly dressed in a blue linen suit that didn’t even look wrinkled.  She had artistically draped a gauzy scarf around her neck and anchored it with a gold sunburst pin.  To Emily’s mind, the most fashionable women were the ones who used scarves and jewelry dramatically.  Emily felt her own attempts at fashion flare were notably unsuccessful.  She always looked so prim: the perfect slim little old lady whose only extravagance was her refusal to wear sensible shoes.  Oh well, she didn’t much mind.  She was hardly unique.

During the day Emily saw many other older women alone.  Independent old men were somewhat rarer.  This morning, walking along one of the city’s most fashionable streets, she had passed a woman with jaundiced skin and dirty, torn clothes.  How long could the woman survive—certainly not through another long northern winter.  How long had the woman survived in the streets, with nobody?

Strictly speaking, Emily had nobody, either.  Most of her friends had moved in with children or found a retirement home to suit them.  Emily kept up with her friends, but she rarely got to see them.  An only child who had never married, Emily didn’t find it strange to be alone.

On Saturday mornings in mild weather, she visited the open-air market near her apartment.  She never tired of seeing the rows of flowers and lush fruits and vegetables, or of watching women from the city’s ethnic neighborhoods buy the ingredients they’d combine in a thousand different ways.  She had so many places she liked to visit, especially the bookshops near the university.  Tonight they’d be open late.

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Université de Montréal, by Colocho – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

Fifty and more years ago she’d walked near the university with her young men.  She’d had her opportunities, but in the end she chose none of them.  Without a husband and children, she’d had more freedoms than most women of her generation.  Summers she had traveled, teaching herself to read a map and to make her needs known in other languages.

Young women who live alone have an easier time as old women, Emily believed.  She knew women who wouldn’t leave their apartments after dark, who were afraid to ride the Metro.  Until they were old they’d never been alone.  They didn’t know how to learn self-confidence now.

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Station in the Montreal Metro, by Chicoutimi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

The evening world was a world of couples and companionable groups.  If she wasn’t on her guard, the useless melancholy would find her.  She was lucky not to be hiding in her apartment like so many of the others.

The young men were playing another familiar melody.  Her parents would have liked it here this evening.  Her father had loved music, and her mother had loved people.  It would be easy to be sad; they’d been gone so long.  The hardest times were early in the morning and late at night, just before sleep.  The trick was knowing which memories to let in.

When she was twenty, she’d had long hair, and at least a couple of boys had thought her pretty.  One had wanted to marry her.  They’d picnicked by the river and played duets on her parents’ old upright.  Silly girl—it had seemed so important to her to be pretty and to have a fiancé.  But he’d had a temper that she knew one day he’d turn on her, so she had broken the engagement.

Her parents had paid for her to go back to college when she was twenty-five.  Already she had a teaching degree, when many girls of her time never had a chance to go past high school.  The master’s degree made her more determined to be an independent and strong woman, but then she turned thirty and the longing for a child grew more instead of less.  Still the men were not right for her, and she turned forty and moved forward into spinsterhood.  She had a career and parents who loved her and never pushed her to be like other daughters.  Nearly every fair Saturday night up through the summer of her forty-fifth year, the three of them had gone together to hear the orchestra play in the park.  The smell of warm August nights still carried on its fragrance the memory of her family and those Saturday evenings.

It was better not to walk down the street where she’d grown up, at least not to pass the house after the lights were on and Emily could glimpse the life going on inside.  It was too easy then to believe her life had ended in another era.

She wouldn’t let herself feel like an intruder in the young people’s world, in the world of couples.  From where she was sitting, Emily could see the old couple holding hands under their table.  She turned and looked at the girls.  They had so much life to get through.

While Emily was finishing her third cup of tea and slice of walnut pie, the musicians put away their instruments.  Maybe in one of the shops she could find a good copy of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  She’d never read enough from the reclusive poet who shared her name.  In her master’s degree, she’d concentrated on Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, never realizing then that no man, no matter how perceptive, can prepare a woman for the life she will live.

Near the bookshops she would watch young people milling around outside their music clubs and hear their rhythms spill out on the sidewalk.  The floating flute and guitar melodies mustn’t make her forget that life still drives forward.