Going with the Flow

IMG_3133A whole month at our wilderness cabin in Montana–that was my grand experiment in August. Would I get bored or lonely? How would I spend my days, and would the silence at night become oppressive? Would I start hearing frightening noises at 2 a.m.?

I wasn’t strictly alone for a whole month. My family came the first week, a friend visited for a few days the third week, and my husband’s sister hiked with me to Timberline Lake. The cabin is one of about twenty in the area, many owned by the same families for generations, so we have a long history together. There was always another light on somewhere. Still, it was the most time I have ever spent in my own company.

I brought many things to do but no agenda; my philosophy was to start every morning with coffee on the screened porch, staring at the mountains and watching the hummingbirds and chipmunks. I let each day shape itself.

At first I had little physical energy. I appreciate the fact that the cabin is at 7600 feet; I have an excuse to sleep a lot. I needed the rest after a month of pit orchestra work and four months of deep grief for my sister. Crocheting a blanket for my first grandchild was a way of resting, meditating, and healing while satisfying that annoying Protestant Work Ethic I have inherited.

I also puttered. Sheets needed organizing, twin and double in different bins. Pillows had to be on the right chairs for color and comfort. I brought up two new pictures to hang and ended up moving several after days of imagining possibilities. I transformed the porch from cluttered storage area to peaceful haven. In my rare forays into civilization I bought new curtains and rugs and tried them all out in several rooms before deciding where they belonged–for now. Puttering can be done one small task at a time as the mood strikes, between cups of tea and rows of crochet.

I had fallen far behind with my online Latin translation groups. Latin is another form of puttering for me, a puzzle to keep my brain sharp. I warmed up with my fun assignments from Hobbitus Ille and then caught up to my Aeneid and medieval Latin groups. Someday someone can write in my obituary,  “Kathryn succeeded in translating the Aeneid at a rate of thirty lines per week over ten years.” Or not.

Eventually I worked up to actual writing, which takes little physical energy but a great deal of emotion. An essay took shape in my coffee cup one day, inspired by my annoyance at Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. What’s in Kansas, anyway? You’re in Oz, for crying out loud, and you have fabulous friends, a good witch on your side, and magic shoes. There’s a hell of a lot beyond your front door. Quit whining and look around yourself. Of course, then I realized that I was Dorothy and I was really yelling at myself.

IMG_2984Another morning I decided to take a picture of the hummingbird. I pulled a chair outside, just behind a tree, turned on my camera, and scared it away. While I was waiting for it to be lured back to the feeder by the irresistible magic syrup,  a moose and her baby walked by, and I got a great shot of the baby and all of the mother but her nose. Then I went after the chipmunk, baiting it with peanuts and thirty-year old popcorn. (Waste not, want not.) At last the hummingbird came and drank long enough for several pictures. Out of the hundred I took that morning two and a half were good–one bird, one rodent, and one moose calf.

IMG_2980Pictures like that need a story to go with them. I wrote that too: a story about all the special things at Camp Senia for my grandson-to-be. And then I needed more pictures to go with the story. Sometimes life proceeds like hot dogs and buns.

At last I decided to break in my hiking boots with a short hike. Ten miles later I decided they fit well. Getting started is always the problem with exercise–I’m great once I get going.

What I didn’t do were the two things that I truly intended to do.

First, serious music practice, the kind where I get down to the finger muscles and make them work together using infinite patience and analysis. It’s the kind of practice that no one wants to listen to, and I don’t care about bothering the moose. I did play. I spent a morning immersed in Telemann’s Fantasias, and another skipping through my three volumes of Van Eyck’s variations. I liberated my Native American flute from its display case and played random chants on the porch. I enjoyed two sessions with Red Lodge recorder players who had randomly found me via the mysterious early music grapevine. But there’s a difference between playing and practicing, and something was holding me back from what I really needed to do.

And secondly, that damn novel I keep restarting about a woman taking a solo retreat at a mountain cabin. This time I wrote down ideas, dreamed up characters, imagined dialogue, debated about adding romance. But I wrote not a word. I took some comfort from Annie Dillard, who reminded me that Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn while living in New York, There’s something to be said for living life fully and then writing about it later.  At this rate, though, I’ll finish translating the Aeneid before I write my own epic.

Two months later, I’m still mulling about this. It’s always the getting started that’s the problem, even on a solo retreat with no distractions. The water’s fine once I dive into the pool, so please, someone come push me in!

Montana 2013 074


For Marjorie

Steamboat Rock “Did you climb the ladder?” my mother asked.

I was totally exhausted from a hike in Sedona with her former hiking club, the Westerners. The day started at Posse Grounds Park, where I had a choice of three hikes of varying difficulty. Since I belonged to a hiking club at home, and I was younger than most of the people gathered there, I picked the hike up Steamboat Rock. I hadn’t packed my hiking poles, and that turned out to be good, since I found myself scrambling up smooth slopes of red rock to get to the top of the boat portion of the rock. The smokestack loomed above, a sheer rock face.

“It wasn’t there any more,” I answered. “The hike leader said the Forest Service removed it because there were too many accidents.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” she sympathized. “I used to love the view from the top.”

Now I knew what kind of hiking and climbing my parents had done in their late seventies.

All that hiking as well as daily lap swimming served my mother well. A car accident ended her hiking days when she was 77, but she proved all the doctors wrong and learned to walk again. During her 80s, she traveled by train across the Canadian Rockies, on an African safari and cruise to South America, by bus along the Lewis and Clark Trail, and to New Zealand and Switzerland. She still lives independently in her home beneath Coffee Pot Rock. If I did believe in Sedona Vortex energy, I’d swear it’s keeping her a lot younger than 90.

Marjorie SchaefferShe has always brought a lot of energy to her life. She grew up on a farm near Mendon, Illinois during the Depression but set her sights on more education and a wider world. She used a home economics scholarship to the University of Illinois to become a dietician, which involved catching up on all the math and chemistry she didn’t get in her local high school. At twenty one she moved to San Francisco for a dietetic internship at Stanford Hospital and celebrated the end of the war there. While she was working in her first job at the University of Chicago, she met a young medical student and married him three months later. With him she lived in Portland, Maine; Cleveland; Shawnee, Oklahoma; Billings, Montana, and finally Sedona. They traveled the world together, all over Europe and Central America and even to China when tourism first opened there. Today the girl who grew up with no electricity corresponds with her grandchildren on Facebook.

Life at 90 has many challenges, including the loss of many friends and relatives. This past month has been one of the hardest, as her middle daughter passed away at 60 from melanoma. Patricia and the rest of the family worried that this death would be the last straw for my mother, that she would at last go into a depression and decline. But yesterday she told me that she had dreamed about climbing a mountain, and that every time she thought she was at the top another slope appeared; there was always more climbing to do.

“I think the dream means that you just keep climbing,” I said. “It would be easy to turn around and go downhill, but you never do that.”

Today she is off to her yoga class. I’m staying home to rest.

That Song

“You didn’t pick that horrible song, did you?”  asked my mother.

My brother-in-law Stephen and I had just returned from meeting with the two ministers who were sharing my sister Patricia’s memorial service, after she died of melanoma. My mother and Stephen were happy that it was in Stephen’s Episcopal church, at Patricia’s request, and I was thrilled that my sister’s Unitarian Universalist minister /music director was doing the eulogy and bringing the UU choir. As a UU and a musician myself, I had gone along to attempt to plan a service that would offend no one.

Since my mother had made no requests I wasn’t sure what song she disliked so much, but I ventured a guess. “Do you mean ‘Amazing Grace”?” I have my own history of disliking that song, but I didn’t know my mother hated it too.

“Yes, that’s it.”

“No, we didn’t choose it. But why don’t you like it?”

“Oh, it’s just so overdone. I’ve been to too many funerals lately and everyone picks that one.” Too true. At almost ninety, my mother has indeed been to way too many funerals, and this one for her middle daughter was way beyond what she should have to bear.

Still, I had to laugh, even in these circumstances. It was my husband’s father Jim who had first expressed hatred for That Song, possibly for the same reasons, but also he did not approve of any song that called anyone a “wretch”.  He probably should have been UU instead of Presbyterian, because our hymnal puts an asterisk at that place in the lyrics and invites the singer to substitute the word “soul” if they so choose. In her meditation collection Walking Toward Morning, Victoria Safford celebrates a church that asks people to choose their theology in the middle of singing a hymn: “I know of no other hymnal in print that virtually stops the singing in mid-measure to poll the congregation, to call for a theological debate within the mind and heart of every singer. And right there, quickly, because the pianist isn’t going to wait for you…”[i]

Personally, my objection is not the word “wretch”, since I have often felt wretched and far from perfect, and since the guy who wrote the song was a slave trader who was quite certainly a wretch. However, the idea that I need a God to save me from eternal hellfire is not part of my theology. The first principal of Unitarian Universalism is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”; Unitarians Universalists reject the idea of original sin. I am, I’m sorry to say, a direct descendent of Jonathan Edwards, who wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and I must say he would not recognize me as kin.

Anyway, my mother-in-law vetoed having That Song at Jim’s funeral and squirmed in visible discomfort two years later at his brother Larry’s service. I was right there with her. Just a week before that service, I attended one for a gentle, beloved friend whose minister chose to use her funeral as a chance to convert his captive audience: “If you ever want to see this woman again, you MUST accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour and repent of all your many SINS! If you do not, you will be eternally DAMNED!” Really? I gave up that theology at 14 when my best friend was Jewish.  That’s why I like the Universalist part of the UU faith—Jesus had some great ideas, but so did a lot of other people in the history of humankind.

It doesn’t help that there are…quick look at Wikipedia…six verses to the thing, and the first verse is usually sung again at the end. The problem with congregational singing, unless there is a drum section or a very aggressive organist, is that hymns are sung too slowly and the tempo drags more with each verse. “Amazing Grace” turns into torture by the end. At that horrific service for my friend, I noticed with gratitude that the minister had skipped for some reason having the congregation sing That Song, even though it was listed in the program.  I happened to overhear him bemoaning this as I walked down the aisle at the end. The organist, who had also noticed the omission, was quietly playing the tune and doing lovely improvisations on it. I said comfortingly, “Oh, but it sounds so amazing done this way.” I still congratulate myself on my tact in that moment. 

So, in short, I don’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling about That Song. But…..

The night before Patricia died, it was clear to me that the end was near. She had taken a sudden turn for the worse, and I knew that several of her friends wanted to see her. There had been talk of her UU choir coming to sing for her in the hospital, but she had resisted that. At 7 p.m., since Pat was no longer in a state to protest, I sent a quick email to one of the choir members who had been corresponding with me arranging food deliveries for our family. My niece Erin contacted one of Patricia’s artist friends who had been asking to visit her. By 8 p.m. at least ten women, choir members and artists, had gathered in the lovely palliative care room that Vanderbilt Hospital provides. The singers and I started with UU hymns such as “Spirit of Life” but quickly morphed to other songs that everyone would know. Early on the pianist Susan had suggested “Amazing Grace” and I had burst out, “I hate That Song!” Later, once we had run through “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and even “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in jazz style (we were in Nashville, after all) someone else suggested “Amazing Grace”. Susan looked at me, and I nodded. She began to hum it.

Among the choir members and the artists there were many who knew how to improvise harmony. “Amazing Grace” without its lyrics filled the room. Even the nurses who had to be hardened to these situations began to find excuses to walk in. Later, after all of the visitors had quietly said their goodbyes and left, Erin, Stephen, and I looked at each other and at Patricia, speechless. Erin finally said, “I think church just happened here.”  

Two weeks later, when I was home in Sacramento, a package arrived from a friend who knew nothing about my history with That Song. It was a wind chime which played the notes from “Amazing Grace”, and the card read: “May you listen to this to remember your sister, and if you get tired of the tune you have my permission to hang it in the garage.”

I finally understand how amazing grace can be.

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch[ii] like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believ’d!

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promis’d good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

John Newton, Olney Hymns, 1779



I hate hospitals.
I’m an extreme introvert with phone phobia and leftover agoraphobia.
I no longer drive a large van, and I no longer drive in a strange place without a GPS.
I don’t know how to aggressively advocate for a loved one’s care…or comfort someone as they are dying.
When I found out a little more than a month ago that I would have to do all those things for my sister, I ran to those who had gone through this and said, “But I don’t know how. I don’t know how to do this.”

They said, “Everyone’s different. You just go and love her and you’ll know what to do.”

So I flew to Nashville and learned how to drive my sister’s van and used my choicest swear words whenever it beeped that I was within three feet of hitting something, including the street as I backed out of their steep driveway.

I learned the quickest way from the rehab center to the hospital’s radiation oncology department. I remembered skills from a summer 35 years ago when I worked in a nursing home to help someone who no longer had the use of her hands and whose legs were weakening daily.

I listened with love to her anger, her grief, her regrets, and her fear, and I waited to cry until I could hole up in the basement of the home she would never return to. Most of the time. I learned we could cry together and life would go on–until it didn’t.

I went to her church and stood up to introduce myself to strangers who suddenly became friends because they loved her too.

I learned that the right people show up miraculously when they are needed the most. Even a dog showed up: puppy day at the rehab center gave her a bichon frise like her old dog Max to cuddle when her mood was darkest.

I learned that decisions were easy when the goal was to end her pain and her fear.

I discovered that I could watch my big sister leave this earth, because I had to let her go. That dying becomes like being born, especially when loving women form a circle and sing, and that the peace created in that circle lasts long after the goodbyes are said.

There is no fear when there is profound love.

Afterward, I found among her files three stories I wrote years ago and had long since lost. All three have the theme of overcoming fear with love and just being oneself. I think she knew I would need them someday.  And I will go on, stronger, savoring the happy times and taking more chances in life because time isn’t eternal after all.


Brussel Sprouts

Whatever my husband Dave and I disagree on in our daily lives, we can always fall back on one thing we have in common: we both hate Brussels sprouts.

I thought this was universal–surely at least 99.9% of all children view Brussels sprouts as the ultimate evil–but apparently some people do grow out of this. Dave and I have always been fairly open minded about food, and we tried to raise our three children that way. Our rule is “You don’t have to finish everything on your plate, and we certainly can’t make you like everything, but you have to taste everything or you don’t get dessert.” This worked quite well. Tim, at age 5, astounded his great uncle Riley when he happily ordered and ate a spinach salad in a restaurant. In following the Try It Rule myself I have gradually taken most items off my Won’t Eat No Matter What List. Brussels sprouts remain firmly in first place.

Well-meaning friends keep telling me how to make them taste better, and I have tried many ways of preparing them. I buy them fresh, still on the stalk. I’ve tried cutting a cross on the bottom of each or cutting the ends off to let the bitterness out. Blanching and roasting is said to bring out the sweetness. Drowning them in garlic butter and heaping bacon and cheese over them helps, as does shredding them for cole slaw or dousing them in maple syrup, teriyaki sauce, cream sauce, or olive oil. (Unfortunately, most of those methods compromise the health benefits of the Brussels sprouts.) I recently tried a side dish of Brussels sprouts roasted with dried cranberries, carmelized onions, and chestnuts at the Hotel Wilshire in Los Angeles. I almost liked that one.

Googling “Brussels Sprouts +bitterness” just now returned 629,000 results. I learned from Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and lore of the Kitchen, that Brussels sprouts contain very high levels of a group of chemicals called glucosinolates: ‘One of the major types (sinigrin, also the major mustard precursor) tastes bitter itself but produces a non-bitter thiocynate, while the other (progoitron) is non-bitter but produces a bitter thiocynate. So whether we cook sprouts rapidly to minimise the production of thiocynate, or slowly to transform all the glucosinolates, the result is still bitter.’ He advises slicing and boiling to remove both chemicals. My favorite set of tips, on the Livestrong website, begins: “Step 1. Pick your home-grown Brussels sprouts after the plant has survived a few morning frosts.” Right.

For some reason, Dave and I got to talking about the Brussels sprouts issue last night at dinner. I had just come home from a church committee meeting where we had talked with a couple of outside consultants about a sticky political issue. Our committee has been wrangling with this for several months now, trying to decide among several ways of dressing up a possible solution to make it more palatable to the congregation. My mind was still deep in the committee discussion when something Dave said jumped into the middle of my thoughts: “It doesn’t matter how you prepare Brussels sprouts or how you try to disguise them, they still taste bad.”

Sometimes it’s best to accept that.


My college age daughter recently had a major disappointment–the details aren’t important–and I thought the house was going to fall down from the tornado of feelings she poured forth. The great thing about her is we always know what she’s feeling; nothing gets bottled up, and we treasure the communication we have with her. Still, it’s hard to see her in pain, and my husband and I reacted by trying to soothe her. We came up with many positive aspects to the situation, tried to distract her, and even played for her Eric Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.  In the end I went to bed in frustration and my husband just cuddled her. In a day or two the storm passed, she accepted her new reality, and the house didn’t collapse.

About that time a friend and mentor of mine posted on Facebook that she had been terribly disappointed in something she had pursued in her career and was upset with herself for being so upset. A long thread ensued in which most of her friends told her to go ahead and wallow in her feelings. Wisdom kicked in–didn’t my daughter have the same right? Perhaps the better soundtrack for disappointments is Rosey Greer singing “It’s All Right to Cry”.

And then it was my turn.  Two days before we were to take my daughter to college in San Diego and fly out of LA to Peru with another couple, a picture appeared on Facebook of my friend being loaded into an ambulance for what turned out to be two broken ribs and a collapsed lung.  He would be unable to fly or travel to high altitudes for at least eight weeks. Peru was abruptly rescheduled for January to give him plenty of time to heal.

At first we didn’t have time to wallow. We had to change reservations, invoke our travel insurance, dump the contents of our suitcases, and repack for a five day trip to Southern California instead of 3 weeks in the Andes. But as we enjoyed a leisurely trip with extra days in San Diego and a visit with our son, who cycled down the coast from LA to join us, we began to make a mental list of all the reasons January will be a better time to visit Peru. I have new music students I felt uneasy about leaving, and my husband has complications at work that should be cleared up by then.  I’ll have time to lose 20 pounds I don’t want to drag up Machu Picchu and learn more Spanish. October is beautiful in Sacramento; January is not; we’ll hit rainy weather in Peru, but better there than here. In the yearly cycle of my energy and emotions, fall is the time when I dig into my life with renewed energy; January is typically my time to withdraw from responsibilities and hibernate.

The best thi;ng so far about postponing our trip is that we both had our schedules cleared here for nearly four weeks. We can be selective about what we add back in since we discovered that people can manage without us for awhile.

So I guess I’m more Eric Idle than Rosey Greer. And when we do get to go to Peru with our friends, we’ll appreciate every moment with them. Because that’s what it’s all about.

Lenten is Come

Lent began yesterday, and I began thinking this morning about what I would give up this year. It’s not going to be procrastination.

Last year’s experiment with giving up worry was reasonably successful–see “Let it Be” from March 2011. This year I will add a tangible item–that second glass of wine–but I want to choose another unhelpful mind habit. This morning, as I was enjoying a rare walk in the beautiful park right next to my house, I chose lame excuses.

The excuses I have come up to avoid walking in the past few months have been particularly weak, since we are in the middle of a drought and have had gorgeous sunny days nearly all winter. And it’s not just walking; it’s practicing music, writing, traveling, skiing, swimming, craft projects, going to concerts and shows, translating Vergil–all things that I sincerely enjoy once I actually start doing them.

Lame excuses usually fall into a few categories:

No Time: I had time yesterday to catch up on three episodes of Glee.

No Energy: I have never yet fainted from exhaustion from any of the activities I have listed above.

Perfectionism: The IRS will probably not put me in jail if I make a mistake on my taxes.

No Money: That’s where giving up the second glass of wine will help. Little things add up.

Weather: We don’t have blizzards in Sacramento, and we have a four-wheel drive that I haven’t yet used for skiing.

Fear of Dying: I could slip in my bathtub, but I still shower every day.

No Rewards: Long term, there are indeed rewards. Short term–who said I was too old for stickers?

So for the next 40 days I will write down those lame excuses whenever I catch myself using them. I’ll start as soon as I find the right color of pen and buy a pristine notebook with precisely 40 pages.