Hopefully this isn’t a harbinger of things to come, not just yet anyway since we all know there is no way to ultimately prevent it, but death has been on my mind lately.

No, no. Not to worry. I’m not depressed or anything like that but two things this past week got me to thinking about dying and death, leading me to wonder what the fear is like when you know that the end – your end, your demise – is imminent, likely, certain – and knowing that you are helpless to prevent it. On a somewhat different plane, I have recently questioned too, what it is that goes through a person’s mind in a situation, where it is, sadly, what one seeks by one’s own hand, to bring about one’s own death.

First, the latter.

Amidst the beauty of the Rocky Mountains last week, as my husband and I were finishing a long hike, we encountered two park rangers and red tape strung between two trees to prevent us from taking that section of the trail. We were told there had been an accident at the falls. They wouldn’t provide us with any details but we later learned that someone had died there, presumably from having fallen off the steep cliffs towering over the river below. A friend who lives in Colorado told me a few days later that it had been a suicide, a 33-year-old male.

No one can ever know what another person’s motivation is whether it’s in regard to their career choices, their deeds (good or bad), their relationship choices (again, good or bad) and certainly not in regard to the state of such desperation as to drive them to end their own life. But it’s always tragic because whatever is currently causing so much hurt and so much pain may not always be so. I’m always a little annoyed when people claim that God ‘never gives us more than we can handle’. I beg to differ. I think not everyone is equipped to deal with the hardships foisted upon their lives whether due to nature or nurture (or more likely lack thereof) or caused by some evil act or simply as the result of the randomness of the universe. To proclaim such a thing, then, I think is to imply a weakness or a failing of the individual which I liken to adding insult to injury. Some things just ARE more than some people can – or should be able to – handle. It’s easy to come up with examples of individuals who have beaten the odds and won out over adversity, who despite a truly lousy set of circumstances, were able to persevere, to continue on, to be happy and enjoy their lives.

Not everyone, however, is so equipped to deal with hardships, for whatever reason. How enormously difficult must it be to deal with the violent loss of one’s childhood or innocence? How are we to suppose someone deals with physical disfigurations and bodily grotesqueries that severely impede their ability to meld into the social fabric of everyday life, having to endure taunts as children or the never-ending stares of strangers? To never know the stirrings of self-confidence and the ease of navigating the world thanks to a healthy self-image? Who are we to judge?

So while it is heartbreaking to learn that someone was so lost, so unhappy, so miserable with their lot in life that he or she would choose to end it, we cannot ever know, truly, the pain and despair that was so embedded in their being that to die and be no more was preferable to their suffering.

The second trigger to my pondering death and dying was an event that that occurred in 1888. I’m reading about a blizzard of epic proportions that killed hundreds of schoolchildren. On the morning of January 12, the people living in the plains area of the Dakotas, Nebraska and southwestern Minnesota woke up to a beautiful sunny day. Temperatures were milder than they had been in some time and as such, many of the children wore no coats, hats or gloves to school due to the unseasonably mild weather. Later in the day, however, the sky ‘exploded’ with sand-like snow, harsh, driving winds and a cold wave unlike anything the settlers there had ever seen.

In some cases, the teachers kept the children sheltered at school while others decided it best to dismiss school early to allow the students time to walk home. Some survived but many, many – far too many – people died. Their stories of struggling to seek shelter from the cold and the wind and the snow are heart-wrenching. Stories of bravery, loyalty and sacrifice, stories filled with parents’ decisions to not send their children to school that day, teachers’ decisions to stay in their classrooms, decisions to brave the elements, chance decisions to head in one direction and not the other: the chronicle of this staggeringly savage meteorological event is a tapestry of ‘if only this’ and ‘if not that’ which is harrowing to contemplate.

To find oneself caught in the open plains during a raging snowstorm, where you cannot see your hand in front of your face or to be unable to hear the shouts of your companions due the fierce howling winds, where the cold is literally sucking the life out of you, your body covered only with the thin fabric of what you’d worn to school that day and not having a coat or jacket to wrap around your body, or a scarf to protect your throat or gloves to cover your hands and fingers or a hat to keep what little heat remains within you from exiting your body through your head, is simply more than I can imagine. The horror of it, the reality of what this exposure to the elements would ultimate exact – one’s LIFE – may not have been on the minds of the youngest children but certainly the adults and the older students had to know they were not long for this earth.

I’m not known for having a high tolerance for pain. Nor do I easily bear being cold. It is, therefore, difficult for me to envision myself lost and alone, cold, so bitterly cold and unable to see or hear or feel anything except the blinding white, frigid, shrieking chaos all around me, frightened beyond anything I’d ever before experienced and knowing that the likelihood of survival or rescue or ever feeling warm and cozy and safe again was a reality of brutally false proportions. The terror and agony of what these people had to face is inconceivable.

How and when and where death makes itself known to us is impossible to say. May it, when death comes, be swift and painless, best perhaps, while we sleep. A mystery for the ages, contemplated throughout the course of history, unknown to all. I have no wisdom to impart. I only know now that these events, a chance encounter on a wilderness trail and picking up a book whose jacket cover caught my eye, has lead me to think of death in ways I had not before and for that, strangely enough, I am grateful. For I have been made urgently more aware of how beautiful and satisfying and comforting my own life is so I’d best enjoy it while I still can.

Re-blogging this wonderful piece from a dear blogging friend of mine. I haven’t “known” her for long but I very much enjoy her writing and her photography. What I know of her from her blog, she is one very amazing and interesting person. Good job Martha!

Therapeutic Misadventures

The connotations of the word “intimacy” were flooding through my mind on the way home from work. Is intimacy the tiny details we pick up from daily interactions with people? I shared an intimate secret with a woman who is most easily described as a customer. We know nothing about each other’s lives except her love of cooking and her passion for inspiring ingredients. Her unconscious aroma is lemon. We talked about essential oils and I shared my signature scent, the perfume I have worn daily for over 30 years; Annick Goutal’s Eau d’Hadrien. I first found it while working in Harvard Square. There was a small, hole-in-the-wall shop that carried only finest European soaps and perfumes. You could find a real, boar’s bristle hairbrush, exotic toiletries, and you could test out wondrous scents from decades of ago.

The intimacy I witness in other arenas of life are the ones…

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I’m cranky.

There. I’ve said it. Don’t ask me why, because I can’t really explain it, but since we got back from our wonderfully relaxing vacation in Colorado last week I’m in a mood. First day back I felt GREAT! Isn’t life fantastic? Lots of energy, sleeves rolled up, told husband I felt like I had my mojo back.

And then it all went south.

My first thought was that perhaps my foul demeanor was due to the change in elevation. Many of the trails we hiked in the Rocky Mountains brought us higher, ever higher, our lungs expanding in the thin air and our hearts pounding like jackhammers in our chests. One day last week we stood at a high point along the Trail Ridge Road where we towered over everything else around us at more than 12,000 feet, wind howling and bellowing, it seemed, from every direction. But now, here we are, back in the lowlands of the Midwest (Des Moines, elevation 958) and my poor body has no idea what to do with all this extra, heavier, moisture-laden air. While in Estes Park we pretty much ate what we wanted but came back at our pre-vacation fighting weights, thanks to all the hiking we did. Stuck in ‘pig-out’ mode, we’ve maintained the same eating habits so maybe that’s a contributor as well to said crankiness.

But when I ponder this further I think I know the answer. In Colorado, for one glorious week, we knew FREEDOM. We did pretty much whatever we damned well pleased and never (well, hardly ever) gave work more than a glancing thought or two. Monday morning when the alarm clock went off at five-twenty, it was truly a rude awakening and an evil reminder that our time, now, was no longer ours to call our own.

Sing it Soul II Soul: Back to life, back to reality!

Bill and I have taken very few trips longer than a three or four day weekend. This time we were away from work for ten whole days. That’s a long time to get used to being on your own schedule, being master of your minutes and hours and days. I loved it! But oh how cruel having to return to the workaday world after such a carefree existence as that which enveloped us in Colorado. Perhaps it’s because retirement isn’t really that far off but this little ‘vacay’ of ours has just made it seem even more tantalizing than ever before. I want it and I do, yes, want it now. The harsh, financial vagaries of life, however, intrude.

The state-run lottery here has a slogan that urges folks to buy tickets by (not so?) gently reminding them that you can’t win big bucks if you don’t play the game. So please excuse me while I, ahem, make a quick run to the nearest convenience store.

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This grand specimen greeted us early one morning as we drove into Rocky Mountain National Park last week. He stood just across the road from us and raised his head to bugle. When he’d finished staring us down, he ran across the road right in front of our car. Incredible! We saw elk throughout our week long stay but seeing this guy took the prize. A wonderful way to start our day! Just one of many memorable moments to cherish forever. Dare I say – this is what life is all about!

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My husband and I (no, NOT pictured here!) just returned from a week in Colorado. We stayed in Estes Park and had ourselves a wonderful time. Hiking the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park was more lovely, more beautiful, more amazing than I could have ever imagined. We only scratched the surface of what the park has to offer and so, like General MacArthur, we shall most certainly return – perhaps time and time again.

An interesting observation that Bill and I both made during our visit was the surprising number of elderly hikers on the trails. We encountered this lively couple on two separate outings as we made our way ever upward, navigating steep inclines, large rocks and loose gravel en route to incredible vistas, towering cliffs, rushing streams, golden aspens and roaring waterfalls. The woman shown here is 65, a cancer survivor and her partner is 80. We chatted about this ‘elderly phenomenon’ with some younger hikers at one point on the trail. They had hooked up the day before with a couple who were both 85, one of whom had had a knee replacement. The octogenarians took them through a shortcut in the trail that they knew about and the youngsters told us they had a hard time keeping up.

How cool is that?

Some of these seniors told us they had been hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park for 30-35 years which is probably key to their ability to traverse this challenging terrain with such ease. But I don’t think that tells the whole story. To a person, everyone we spoke to exhibited an enthusiasm and a joy of living that, I believe, helps to propel them forward just as surely as the hiking boots on their feet or the hiking poles held in each hand.

Inspiring? You bet. The time is NOW to get out there and enjoy life: To commune with nature, to eat healthy and be active, to keep putting one foot in front of the other whether as ‘flat-landers’ (as the couple above described themselves) or as experienced hikers in any one of our nation’s amazing national and state parks. John Muir once said “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”

After a week spent in awe of Rocky Mountain National Park, I could not agree more.

We’ve been cable-free for several months now after paying homage to the DirecTV gods for far too many years. Not being chained to endless political programming and 24×7 news coverage as well as getting sucked in to one cable TV documentary and special feature after another is refreshing. We now have more time (though in truth never, never enough) to pursue other interests.

If ever I thought I might miss the plethora of options cable TV provides, those fears have now been laid to rest. Late this afternoon, while out and about, we caught a glimpse of some of the cable news stories du jour. The overly dramatic posturing, the hype, the propensity of the news personalities, regardless of your political persuasion, to insert themselves in such a manner as to being the story nearly induced nausea. The only thing we’ll miss is easy access to televised sporting events such as away games for our beloved Iowa State Cyclones. A small price to pay, however, for a return to sanity and clearer thinking. No regrets whatsoever. I heartily recommend cutting the cord and returning to network TV. With the easy and affordable availability of streaming and movies we don’t feel like we’re missing a thing. And saving almost $1200 a year sure feels good on the old pocketbook as well. A winning proposition no matter how you look at it!