Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ready to climb my mountain

I’m off to climb my mountain! Somehow, the Chilkoot Trail became my own personal Everest, the target for all my worries and trepidation. After years of loading the kayak with all the gear, it just seemed so daunting to carry it all on my back … up 3,500 feet, over boulders and snow. But now – on the eve of departure – I’M READY!

I would not be ready if it weren’t for the gang of people who have given advice, loaned equipment, taken me on practice hikes and trips, made all the reservations, boosted my spirits, and basically convinced me I could do this.

I feel like I’ve had a pit crew working to make sure the car – me – was in running order.

My meals are assembled and packed, clothing is all set, and rain is prepared for. I have Mary’s lightweight tent and Thermarest, Tim’s lighter sleeping bag, Joan’s pack cover. I put the pack on my back and it’s … doable! Tomorrow we hit the road for Skagway.
He doesn’t even know it, but a young man got my confidence going. He just said, “Y’know, you can just take it slow and move one foot in front of the other uphill.” At least that’s what I heard. But just this past Monday, Linda and I faced a summit, said “let’s do it,” and up we went!

It was glorious, sitting there at the top, a goal realized and enjoying the climb. One foot in front of the other.

So now, six women take on the Chilkoot Trail. We’ll be back in August, mission accomplished!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Is leisure something we have to earn?

If after leading his country’s fight against apartheid, after spending 27 years in prison, after serving five years as his country’s president, if after all that, Nelson Mandela had just wanted to retire and relax; would he worry that he was lazy and unproductive? Would his legacy remain intact?

Tuesday, I wrote about the wonderful, accomplished, generous Sharon. But now I’m going to add a little more to the story. When Sharon saw the post I’d written about Shirley Mae, this is what she said, “She is such a force! I am now feeling completely inadequate to even being interviewed by you. I do nothing in retirement but sew, have dinner parties, a little gardening, and make gifts for people.”

Do you recognize yourself in a headset like this? I do. Almost every woman I know does.

There are two directions my mind goes when I think about this. There’s the general legacy question – and why I added the Nelson Mandela example: when can someone rest on his or her laurels? In retirement, do the accomplishments of our previous Thirds give us a pass to just enjoy our Third Third? If we work hard, do we get to play? (Listen to me! I know I sound like some rigid Puritan debating whether we’ve earned enough points for heaven, but it’s a real question.)
And then there’s the self-esteem question, which is particular: do I feel like I’ve personally done enough, contributed enough? If things count, do my things count? Did I earn my play time? And if my things don’t really count, that means any leisure on my part is just an excuse for deep and unrelenting laziness.

Yes, even I know this sounds very hair-shirt-ish – I’m starting to think these last two paragraphs are grounds for seeking therapy – but that’s the extreme version. I think the question goes to our sense of “ought” and “should” and worthiness.

It reminds me of the annual Women of Achievement Awards, an annual YWCA event. Hundreds of women would listen to the stories of the awardees: they saved lives, started businesses, raised kids who got Ph.D.s, baked their own bread, won elections, and – oh, by the way – built their own houses. These are incredible women and we applauded them … and then walked away feeling mediocre (at best).

We are supposed to be inspired by these stories, and we are. But … then we catalog our deficiencies.
My friend Connie and I were noting how we are so generous when we look at other people and their value in the world and so un-generous with ourselves.

As my friend Linnea was preparing to travel overseas – as she was hustling to get it all together – she took the time to write me a note. I’d been in one of my “I am a value-less time waster” phases, and she wrote a note to tell me how I’ve made a difference in her life. My reaction? Delight and pleasure and … why wasn’t I as thoughtful as Linnea in showing appreciation?

We have to stop doing this!
    (Uh, oh – has everyone else already stopped and I really do need therapy???)

A long time ago, a friend was into enneagrams, which (near as I can tell) are like some new age Myers-Briggs personality categories. I was a 4. She said I could see how something would be really terrific … if just this change was made. Fours look at a room and say, “It’s decorated beautifully; it just needs a lamp over there.” Supposedly, we notice what’s missing.
We can’t all be 4s when it comes to ourselves!

When I was pregnant, I thought about what life lesson I would want to impart to my daughter. I summed it up as “touch the world with care and when you leave, leave love behind.” I haven’t been a good poster child, but I still get shivers when I think the thought, and I see it clear as day when I reflect on Sharon and others who demonstrate kindness in their lives.

So maybe today’s thought is to extend that same kindness to ourselves.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Oceans of Trash, Mountains of Trash

I’ve written here about planting little acorns – doing some small volunteer activity – and having its impact become a great oak. But it works in reverse, too: little bits of human activity that become a huge, disgusting problem. I’m talking about trash, and I’m talking about plastic bottles.

Today, in my continuing quest for New Things to get involved in, I sorted through mountains of marine debris washed ashore on the coastline of Alaska. Not just mountains – Everests of marine debris. Oceans of marine debris. It was more shit in one place than I’ve ever seen. And most of that was plastic.

At least I got to see it in a pile at the Anchorage port and not on a shoreline I’d kayaked to, hoping for wilderness.

You just can’t imagine the hugeness of the whole Gulf of Alaska Keeper enterprise. There were enormous white bags brought to us on forklifts, bags so big that three people looped their shoulders through handles to carry them to waiting containers or dumpsters. Hunks of Styrofoam so big that no bag could hold them. Bag after bag after bag dumped out for the volunteer sorters.
We were sorting because this year Parley for the Oceans was arranging for some of the plastics to be recycled. Otherwise, that mountain of trash would go into the landfill. So the job for sorters was to separate out the hard plastic (HDPE #2) from the soda and water bottles (PETE #1). We could also put rope and net in a pile to be reused, buoys in another container, plastic pipes for something else. The Styrofoam and other junk were just trash.
Whenever stories appear about clean-ups, they always talk about the unique and interesting things people find. That’s like talking about the needle in the haystack. The real horror is that most trash is everyday, boring things that we use all the time – that we use and toss and transform into enormous piles of garbage. I cannot describe how many laundry baskets were in the pile, how many buckets and bins, coolers and bottles. And bottles. And more bottles.

Why today was a great day:

  1. One of the women said this enormous mountain of trash came from only one little tiny corner of the world. The rest is still out there. Yikes, we’re worse than the Cuddy Park geese in fouling our own nest with shit! Like that old proverb about saving one starfish (because it mattered to that one starfish), I am really gratified about these bags and bags of now-recycled trash. I even brought a buoy home because my friend Sunnie needed a buoy. One buoy restored to usefulness!
  2. On a weekday morning, almost all of us were retired women. Look at us: trying to clean up the world for the next generation! We were essentially set loose, and we are really, really good at teamwork: we started new collection baskets, emptied them into the giant white bags. Decided when something was too big and went straight into the dumpsters, when the sorting table needed to be resupplied with bags and piles, where deflated buoys went. We had just two instructions – what was #1 and what was #2 – and the rest was about our doing what needed to be done. My friend Connie marveled at how satisfying it was to volunteer that way, to fluidly self-manage.
  3. It is really filthy. My hair feels like it’s been hair sprayed; my sneakers are wet and gray. Connie rolled now-empty giant white bags for storage, and she is REALLY filthy. Lifting huge bags, rolling buoys to their container, flinging things into bins – getting filthy is hard-won fun; it makes showers really rewarding.

  4. Me? I’m a recycling maniac. I have been known to reach into public trashcans to retrieve recyclables. Putting #1s and #2s in the right spot is like re-aligning the order of the universe, getting all those ducks in a row. (Tim says I’m always aiming for duck nirvana.) Getting in the zone of sorting is like berry-picking: after a while, your world is only the object in front of you and its rightful place in the bucket. You can’t stop because there’s always more.
And that’s the sad thing. There is always more.

So what can we do? We can give up single-use plastic. We can use personal water bottles and stop buying plastic water bottles for meetings and conferences and car rides. And if you want a fun, engaging, meaningful, dirty, hard work kind of day, they need volunteers every day between July 19-26: email

Monday, July 18, 2016

Profiles in Third Thirds: Sharon

Let me tell you about Sharon. Sharon is my hero (and role model). For all the time I’ve known her, she has put her energy into improving the world. She just reminded me that we first met when she was teaching workshops on training nonprofit boards and I was in one of her classes. But after that, Sharon went on to start the YWCA in Anchorage. She took it from a tiny, little one-person operation to a major force that owns its own building, positively impacts thousands of women’s lives, and is thoroughly sustainable even when Sharon left after many years.

During all this, she served on the School Board for 7½ years and, not to go unmentioned, was a BizBee judge for TEN YEARS. (We both love spelling and grammar.)

So now Sharon is 75 and retired. Her Third Third? Pursuing her domestic hobbies: mostly wool appliqué and cooking. She has a sewing room dense with projects and hundreds of cookbooks (a thing which totally mystifies me – I can’t even imagine how one would begin to peruse that many cookbooks. Sharon says looking through a cookbook at the end of a day is her reward for getting some of her to-do list done.) Sharon even batches all her out-of-house appointments and errands so she can stay home most days with her projects.

As Sharon puts it, “I gave up trying to save the world and being personally responsible for ‘empowering women and girls and eliminating racism’ and am content to play a very small part.” But she still registers new voters at citizenship ceremonies and donates her sewing work for nonprofit auctions. Friends receive her gifts, and I love her rhubarb chutney on salmon.
During her professional life, I tried to learn how Sharon balanced it all. Now, in our Third Thirds, I’m trying to learn about contentment from her. She says it took her seven years to “come down” after retiring and give herself permission to enjoy it. She tells me wise things like:
“What is the rush? Have you taken some days to just do nothing since being employed? Taking a day with no goal in mind usually ends up being a day where you end up doing something that you like to do….”
“I’m learning to accept that there are only so many hours in a day and what doesn’t get done today, bar some catastrophe, will get done tomorrow.”
“We realize that we gave it a shot but we can’t save the world so it’s now OK to focus on what makes us happy….”
This is what I’m trying to learn from Sharon even though I still hear a nervous calendar clock ticking away in me: I still don’t know what my next Big Thing will be. What passion will drive me? Do I even know what makes me happy? And besides, is that too selfish to pursue? What makes for contentment?

But Sharon knows – and now has the time for – her passion. Her passion is sewing. She calls it her dessert. In the fall, she’s teaching her first class on wool appliqué at a local quilt shop, but she’s always experimenting with new techniques and tools. She couldn’t show me any of her work – she gives it all away – but we went through photos together.
Sharon made this purse out of ties for her husband’s daughter. She said, “It’s made from his old ties (since he doesn’t wear ties anymore). She loved it and I cried when she told me that she could smell his closet on them when she opened the present.”
Her sewing connects Sharon to the women who came before: “My grandmother had her own little sewing shop and my mother at one time did sewing to bring in extra money.” She’s made pincushions that fit in vintage teacups, folk art designs, and wall hangings. She’s made table runners, placemats, and many, many pillows. She’s even made a crown for a princess. They’re all given away as gifts.
Yes, Sharon finds that her time often just dribbles away with projects getting deferred by the “shoulds,” by errands and appointments and watering the garden. And now, her time is getting squeezed because two big tasks have been added to her to-do lists: cleaning up her sewing room jumble of projects and purging her cookbook collection. It’s the de-cluttering albatross. As she puts it, “I don’t want to leave a mess.”

Sharon tackled the big jobs in her Second Third and is now devoting her Third Third to more personal pleasures. Is it so different? Sharon thinks she’s run out of steam, but she’s still giving of herself. Maybe before she used her talents to empower, to fight racism, to save the world. Now she’s using them to add affection and kindness to those around her. The world is still a better place for having her in it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Farewell to greeting cards

When I’d visit my mother, I’d sometimes go through her drawers and think, “Why is she saving all these greeting cards? They’re just signatures on some commercially-created sentiment.” So then I’d try to get her to throw them out, and she’d say no, she liked going through them. Her friends said the same thing.

I bet they never went through them! I bet they just sat there taking up space!

I’d think about how much room she’d have if she’d just get rid of those greeting cards. It offended my de-cluttering sensibilities!

So as the Great Carpet Nightmare has ended and I vowed not to keep anything that could be successfully de-cluttered, I came across a box. Two, in fact. I don’t know how they evaded previous de-cluttering bouts: these boxes had never even been opened.

They were full of greeting cards and theater programs! I’d be embarrassed except that it was so gratifying – so thrilling – to recycle such a huge pile.

My mother saved her Playbills from her lifetime of Broadway plays. She kept them in pristine condition, even had them framed. She saw Lauren Bacall in Applause, Zero Mostel in Fiddler. When she moved out of her home, her collection went to the local theater as a fund raising opportunity for them.
My theater programs? They’re for local theater, little regional theaters. Out North, Toast, Cyrano’s, Kokopelli Theater Company, Pier One, Alaska Rep – several of these theater companies no longer exist. As I went through the programs – hundreds of them – I had no idea what the plays were. I couldn’t tell anything from the titles. So the idea of going through them and fondly remembering each production – that was an idea I’d already ditched. The memory was already gone.

The greeting cards? They were more interesting. My sister, Allison, and I had just been laughing over the birthday card I’d sent her. Every year, we three sisters send cards with messages like, “Do your boobs hang low? Do they wiggle to and fro?” My sister Elizabeth sent me one I still laugh over; telling a shoe salesman about bunions and asking, “Is this the year you start blurting out your ailments to complete strangers?”

So this year, I sent Allison one about good sisters being ones that make you laugh, but great sisters are ones that make you laugh till you pee. She found it hilarious because Elizabeth had sent her the identical card the year before.

So there I was, going through the greeting card box, most of them from Tim. Cards from about a three-year period. Some Valentine’s Day, some anniversary cards. There was this one:
 And then there was this one:
This one:
And this one:
Notice anything? There are even more like this, and they’re from 25 years ago – when we had memories! He didn’t notice he was sending me duplicates, and I didn’t notice I was receiving them. I even saved them without realizing (which is just proof that NO ONE looks at old greeting cards).

NO ONE looks at old greeting cards. Not even to find an uncashed $150 anniversary check from my mother … from back in 1997.

So all the greeting cards have been recycled … except those lovable duplicates. They say something about us, and I’ll look at them and laugh over them at least a few more times. Maybe I’ll even notice if an identical one shows up again.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Pushing Ourselves Uphill

Over the July 4th weekend, we rode our bikes to the Girdwood Forest Fair, a little over eight miles on the “Bird to Gird” path. I ride a one-speed with coaster brakes, the only kind of bike I’ve ever had. (I’ve done triathlons with that bike. People laugh. Did I mention that it has a big basket on the back?) Coming back from the Fair, I used to walk my bike up the relentless uphill. Then, about ten years ago, I started riding the bike up. Somehow, I’d gotten stronger. Now, it’s what I do.

Except this year. This year, I became convinced I wasn’t strong or fit enough. Heading out, I noticed all the downhill, thinking, Oh, no, that’s the uphill I won’t be able to do. So on the way back, I steeled myself, grit my teeth, groaned and pushed and sweat and got that stupid bike up the #!*&!# hill.
All the while, I was thinking, “No one has a gun to your head. You can stop anytime and walk the #!*&!# bike. You can just stop, get down, and walk.” My heart was racing, sweat was pouring, and I thought, “You’re going to have a #!*&!# heart attack and yet you won’t stop and walk the stupid bike.”

I didn’t have a heart attack. I got up the hill and continued biking along. Did I have some incredible feeling of accomplishment, of pride, of relief? No, mostly I was trying to figure out what gun I had to my own head.

Do you know this feeling? Is it about facing down some age-related decline, some fear of mortality that’s fueling this doggedness? Is it about having some notion of my capabilities and not wanting to see them wane? Or is it just pigheadedness and tenacity looking for a target?

Years ago, I wrote and performed in two one-woman plays. After publicity was already out and tickets already sold, I panicked. Not only was I portraying some personally revealing subject matter, but I was doing it on-stage with lines I had to memorize. Memorizing those lines became a trauma for me. I distinctly remember saying, “Nobody put a gun to my head. Why on earth did I sign up to do this harrowing thing?!” I was consumed with terror at the thought of forgetting my lines on a stage with no safety net.
In the end, I made it without a problem, but only after the fact: each night, I was positive on-stage humiliation loomed.

In two weeks, five other women and I hike the Chilkoot Trail. I have not trained as much as I’d like specifically for that so I’m just POSITIVE I’m missing some vast storehouse of strength and fitness, and I’m worrying about it even though a few weeks ago, I ran my annual half-marathon. (Yes, I can run a half-marathon and still worry about whether I’m fit or not. I can come in fourth in my age group and still worry about it.)

Before any race, I am never sure I’ll pull it off. This time, on the way to the start line, the sun was shining and it cast my shadow in front of me. That shadow – that person – looked really fit. She swung her arms, had a zip in her step – she was really strong. She knew she’d finish well. At some point, I made the connection: that shadow was me. I could be that person. I relaxed and ran my happiest half-marathon yet.
Yes, in my Third Third I have skills and capabilities that I don’t even question. I tackle plenty of things that cause me no angst. But on the ones I have self-doubt about, I have to struggle to entertain a positive outcome, to believe that I am strong enough or capable enough or resourceful enough to pull off whatever it is. And yet I sign on for these things!

What I ask of my Third Third is that I’ve learned something. Maybe wisdom, maybe just insight – so elusive! But now I have two thoughts that I’m trying to internalize for the challenge of the Chilkoot Trail:
  • The Chilkoot Trail is a plodding kind of trail. It’s meant to be a walk uphill. There is no timing chip, just one foot in front of the other. Metaphorically, I can get off the #!*&!# bike.

  • If the sun shines, I can find my shadow and follow her to the finish.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Barbara vs. the Houseplants

Last week, I was debating the fate of my houseplants: would I banish them from my Third Third? Do houseplants even belong in a Third Third? When I raised the question with friends, I was shocked – shocked! – by their chorus of “I hate houseplants!”

I thought that was just a Tim thing.

Even though I’m the one in our house who “owns” the houseplants, Tim’s the one who waters them. (I still don’t know how I managed that; it’s a miracle.) Nevertheless, I am the one in charge of clipping, tending, re-potting, and de-pesting.

Houseplants made our house a home. They added foliage, warmth, and Nature to the living room. The spider plant in particular was so successful that I’d give teachers gifts of their own spider plants.

Then things started going haywire. It started with a couple of spider plants with little brown dots and sticky goo. I learned it was called “scale,” and I washed the leaves and the problem went away. Then it didn’t. Then I washed them again.

Somehow, the gooey, sticky, scale problem found its way across the living room to the schefflera tree. It got SO sticky that when I sat in the recliner nearby, my hair stuck to the chair from the goo that had dripped onto it. I took a leaf from the schefflera in to Cooperative Extension, where Julie-the-horticulturist told me that was the WORST infestation of scale she’d ever seen in her WHOLE LIFE and the plants just had to be tossed. She saved it as a specimen, and I ran home to toss the tree in the trash.
But I kept washing the spider plants. We had history together; I couldn’t get rid of them. They were a major anchor in the living room landscape. They were a pain in the neck.

Then the new carpet guys showed up. Yes, they did! Months of living like a nomad in our own home with furniture crammed every which way, eagerly awaiting the carpet guys, and they finally made an appearance. So, of course, more furniture had to be moved around in the overnight room-to-room scramble. You can only move crap so many times before you know it as crap. It was the plants’ turn to be de-cluttered.
This spelled doom for the palm tree. For the twisted philodendron that had a weird, unattractive shape. For the plants that just looked old, ugly, and too late into their Third Thirds. The spiders? Like Felix Unger’s linguine, they’re now garbage. I’m not spending my Third Third washing goo and trying to rescue difficult plants! Marie Kondo, I felt joy getting rid of those plants! Every plant in the trash meant a surge of freedom and pleasure.

I was on a roll: get rid of them all! They just take maintenance. Who needs their dirt, their re-potting demands? But then I read NASA’s research about how valuable they are for cleaning indoor air and some have been with me for years, so instead I put them on probation.

Only happy, easy, pretty things get to live in our living room now. It’s survival of the fittest, and only the healthy endure. If they start causing trouble – if they’re not Olympic material – they’re out!

Tim and the carpet guys surveyed the empty living room. Empty except for the ivy that climbs up the walls of the fireplace to the ceiling and the philodendron that climbs up another wall.

“They gotta be moved.”

“No,” I said. “They can’t! They’re attached. They’ll break.”

So that is how I spent time with the carpet guys, holding planters and balancing plants. As they laid carpet around me, I moved a little to the left, a little to the right, a little forward, a little back. I’ll dance with my houseplants now, but I make no promises. We’ll see how this new relationship goes.

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