Golden

I pushed the button for the 14th floor, the tower suite. I got off the elevator and looked down at my feet. I was barefoot. This seemed crazy to me although I often go barefoot, not to meetings, though, never before had I been barefoot at a meeting. 

I considered leaving but decided that no one would notice my bare feet. Later, during my meeting with the very powerful 14th floor dwellers, I realized I was wearing my pajamas. They were my up-north flannel pajamas, pajamas that had already served time in the big city and had been relegated to cabin wear. They were reversible, tan on one side with brown stripes on the other, and the stripes had somehow bled through to create a curious abstract design on the tan side. They were also snug, which I thought gave me a tailored look, the bottoms fell right at the ankle.

No one seemed to notice that I was wearing pajamas so I decided to shrug it off. In a heart-stopping moment, it came to me that I’d neither washed my face nor brushed my teeth, my mother’s admonition to always be neat and clean blanketing me with shame, but I nodded politely when the 14th floor dwellers asked me to sample their new prosciutto. It was then I realized their business must include meat.

I drove my convertible to my next stop. There, the new adoptive parents of six children greeted me at the door and ushered me into their many kids’ bedroom which was filled floor to ceiling with bunk beds. It made my heart sing that all six children were barefoot and pajama-clad and I was flooded by a sense of belonging rare for a social worker. Next the parents showed me to a second bedroom, also crammed with bunk beds. “You have too many beds,” I advised them. “It will lead to excessive sleeping.” But they had already nodded off and weren’t listening.

************

I pulled back the blue curtain above our bed and saw the stars collecting in the southern sky. We had gone to bed early, having drunk too much beer and then rum, following the news from Texas that my brother’s lung disease was rapidly worsening and that he may not have long to live. It was so urgent, my niece messaged, that I should call him, but the device I need to use to make phone calls wasn’t charged so we decided that I should send a Facebook message which my nephew would read to him.

All this transpired while my husband and I sat in a local bar waiting for a pizza. I tried to put into words what my brother had meant to me as a child, our having grown apart in the so many years since, but everything I wrote sounded used and glossy so I erased the words, over and over again. I wanted to thank him for taking care of me as a little girl, the baby of the family, while my father worked all day at Sears and then played in dance bands at night for extra money and my mother spent her days ironing and privately nursing her bottomless depression. My father’s absence and my mother’s preoccupation bonded me to my brother who was nine years older and always vigilant about them and me, watchful for when he needed to step in, when he should swoop me off the backyard swing and put me on the bar of his bike, saying “Hold on to the handlebars, Red!” Off we’d go with his friends, sailing down the hills of our town to the Fish Hatchery. He never explained why his five-year old sister was coming along and his friends never asked. I was safe and happy with my brother.

I tried to say that to my brother. I tried to thank him for those rides and all the times he made me feel special and loved but I just said, “Thank you for saving me. I love you.”

In the dark, I reached for the phone off the high night stand. There was no message from my niece. My brother must still be alive, I thought. Unless my niece had fallen asleep and decided to wait until morning to tell me. There was no way of knowing. He was across the country, further away if you count the years we hadn’t seen each other. I blamed the situation for my vivid dream, my wandering around office buildings and people’s homes barefoot and in pajamas. I took it to mean I was nearly naked and unprepared for everything that was happening and I rolled over then to stare at my husband’s back.

************

Tonight, there were messages back in forth between me and my niece. I sent an essay I’d written about my brother years ago describing how, when I was about 6 or 7, he convinced me there were elves who had parties every night under the bush in our front yard. He’d take me by the hand, tell me to be quiet so as not to scare away the elves, and then point to the tiny footprints where the elves had all been gathered seconds before. “Oh Red! We scared them away!” he’d say and then we’d go looking again the next night and the next. It was years before I realized the footprints were the impressions made by his fingers in the soft earth. He always called me Red or Short Pants. That was how I signed the message I sent him the night before. Short Pants.

I didn’t ask my niece if she had read the elves essay to my brother. It wasn’t my place to decide what he should hear and what he shouldn’t. It was her decision, so maybe she read it to him, maybe she didn’t. It is a little late to try to be close to your brother, I told myself. You’ve had years for that and you let the years pass by. But then it hit me that we were still close, despite the time and the distance, because we’d grown up together, he had raised me in so many ways. He carried me on his shoulders when I was a little girl, not just for fun, but to keep me safe from deep water. That is what we had connecting us – his valor and my trust – and that was golden. Then and now. Golden.

Hygge Friday Round-Up

Hygge (hue-guh) is the art of wintering gracefully. It’s about making the ordinary lovely and warm but in small everyday ways, intentional but undetectable. It’s a Danish thing. I have a Danish friend whose name is Marcia. She takes hygge with her wherever she goes in that she is always warm and unhurried, glad for the company she has, so everyone around her feels like they’re special and glowing. I want my house to be like that this winter. So that is what this girl remembers about being here.

This week I feel like I have a protest sign tattooed on my forehead. Everywhere I go, I’m pissed off about something and I feel myself slipping into one of those old crank types that attends every public meeting taking furious notes with a chewed-up pencil and yelling “Point of order!” all the time. I was a guest speaker in a graduate class on nonprofits this week talking about activism and community organizing and I told the students that you can’t have everyone hating you at the same time. I might have come close this week.

Our next dog’s name is Punchy. I think we are punchy for getting another dog. It’s ridiculous and an overreach but much like our entire lives have been so we are oddly comfortable with the idea. Punchy is a 10-year old Alaskan Husky, a sled dog currently living at Nature’s Kennel, Swirl’s old hometown. Like Swirl, he probably doesn’t have a clue about living inside, going up and down stairs or walking on a leash, but we know he will be sweet and simple and stoic, also like Swirl. Two retired sled dogs – what on earth could possibly be better?

I love winter. I love weather and snow and cold. But I say this before winter starts its terrible habit of beating the shit out of me, before I’m breathless from shoveling, or picking myself up off the ice after falling. Right now, I love winter. I walked through Lake Park near our house this morning, alone, just me and Swirl, and felt as lucky to be alive as I have ever felt. It might be fleeting but it is true, as true as life can be.

I am all about being an honest elder. I am unabashedly old. I don’t deny, pretend, shrug off. I’m this. I wear my age like Joseph’s coat of many colors, it keeps me warm and glorious. And increasingly I realize that I am protected by the fact that I have nothing to lose. Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose. Precious and sweet and powerful it is, this being old.

A Hard Fall

A lot of people dying. That’s what’s happening.

Death is happening. The word “hospice” seems to be on everybody’s lips. “She’s in hospice.” “He’s in hospice.” This is code for it won’t be long. It’s a signal, the yellow light shining before it turns red and everything stops. The rocket ship is on the launch pad, my friends, and the countdown is about to begin.

What do you do when someone is in hospice? Do you make amends? Do you say, “Hey, I heard you are in hospice. Can we talk about our relationship? That seems peculiar since one person in the dyad is in hospice and not likely to be pondering relationship issues, the other is just struggling to get off the hook before the hook disappears.

It has been a week of unpleasant reckoning.

It would be easier if there wasn’t this rush to the exit that seems to be happening with people I know. It would be easier to handle if it was just one person and then several months or years later another, but it hasn’t been like that. There seems to be a bit of a pile up.

I want to go to the dog park with my dog. That is my answer to all this hospice business. I want it to be cold and maybe a little rainy. I want the sky to be gray and thick. I want to wear boots and thick socks, pull my hood up over my head. I want to smile at other people and dogs but not speak. I want to be outside.

Yesterday I was at a funeral that was a combination of Unitarian and Buddhist ritual. It was purposeful and serene. I watched the people in the pews in front of me relax their shoulders, seeming to fall into the pool of tranquility and patience offered, and so I tried to let go of the things keeping me from serenity so I could be like them. But all I could think about was finding my friend who was the widow of the man who had died (who had been in hospice) and letting her know I had come. Representation is so important to me, showing up, being present, so that was my priority. I couldn’t sink into serenity like the others. It wasn’t possible.

After the funeral, at dinner with friends, I learned that someone else was in hospice. This made three for the week. This was someone I had known well for a long time, who had been a close friend of mine, but whom I had not seen in years. Yes, she was in hospice now. So there was that. I carried that small, burning fact out of the restaurant in my pocket.

We went from dinner to the symphony where we sat in the back row listening to music I can’t name but which involved four French horns playing parts that sounded like husbands mourning their wives. On the way out, we shuffled behind a thousand old people, readying themselves for the rain outside, and I wanted to sprint past them, push my way through the revolving door, and walk arm in arm with my husband, our paces matching all the way back to our car.

Head Spinning

A few nights ago, I searched for old boyfriends on social media.

I found one from when I was 19. When I met him, he was a few years older than me, had just returned from Vietnam, and had his jaw wired shut as the result of a car accident. He was also my college roommate’s boyfriend. She told me to look him up when I visited his town. So I did.

I ended up telling my roommate what had happened, that perhaps I had overinterpreted her suggestion that I look him up. It was one of the most low-down things I’ve ever done – both messing around with her boyfriend and then telling her about it. Even though I’d only known her a year, she had been a true friend who had helped me through a very difficult time. Still, our friendship wasn’t strong enough to withstand a guy. That happened a lot then. It probably still does.

Because he has a public profile on Facebook, I was able to read his posts and see his face. I remembered him as thin with dark hair and eyes, very close-mouthed, not surprisingly. He was sarcastic and funny. He loved music. I heard Otis Redding the first time on his stereo.

We never fell in love. We just hung out. He tried to teach me to smoke marijuana but I was a drinker and didn’t get the point about pot. He got the point, though, and was almost constantly high. It made him mellow which I appreciated at the time because not much else in my life was. But the relationship went nowhere and, one day, another roommate of mine casually mentioned that she’d just gotten back from a motorcycle ride with him. So that was that.

He is an old man now. His hair is white and sparse but he still has a moustache and something of a beard. His Facebook posts make him seem still sarcastic and funny, self-deprecating, skeptical about the world. I gleaned that he had owned a bookstore for many years and was a published writer. He had been married a long time, lived in a house that required firewood, and had two sons who checked in on him during last winter’s polar vortex.

I considered messaging him. To just say, Hey, Hi, it’s Jan, remember me? And then tell him that I was kind of literary, too, married, successful, a pillar of the community. We could be two 70-somethings shaking our heads and rolling our eyes in different states, oh, weren’t we the interesting pair back then in the roaring sixties. But I didn’t. Of course, there was always the possibility that he wouldn’t remember, which would be mortifying and put me in the terrible position of trying to find something notable about myself that would jog his memory and, besides, maybe he has dementia, who can tell? So I scrolled on by.

It was too weird, all of it. I moved on to being preoccupied with the mind-blowing nature of the massive passage of time. Fifty-two years, that’s how much time has elapsed since I’d last seen this man’s face and, I have to say, I barely recognized him. Or myself, for that matter. It’s a trip.

In Today’s Mail

This is my new shirt.

I was never one for belligerent t-shirts but when I saw this one on Facebook, I fell for it.

I had just had a conversation the night before with a much younger woman who was interested in our trip out West. When I told her we had camped half the time, she shook her head, seemingly awed, and then said, “That’s really something. Old people usually don’t want to sleep on the ground. My mother, she would never do that.” “Oh really?” I answered.

It’s always fun to have someone forty years younger tell me what old people usually do and don’t do. Smiling benignly (because that’s what old people do, right?), I watched my little friend trying to sweep up her words and rearrange them into something else. Her discomfort was obvious and I was surprised that I enjoyed it. But then the conversation evaporated and we were both glad.

Last year, the newly-elected sheriff of our town, a very smart, experienced, progressive law enforcement guy, appointed a 20-year old as his chief of staff. Now this is a big county, nearly a million people, with the state’s largest city. The sheriff’s department budget is nearly $44 million, not a little Barney Fife type operation.

So I thought the appointment of a 20-year old for such a huge position was crazy, wacky, somehow weirdly indulgent. The 20-year old had been instrumental in the sheriff’s successful campaign but what 20-year old is ready for a job at that level? Well, this one, apparently. I’ve only met with him once but he was informed, analytical, measured, and sincere. Others have come away with the same impression. He is apparently very good at being the sheriff’s chief of staff.

So back to my belligerent t-shirt.

It might be enough to have it. I might not need to wear it. We’ll see.

Forestry Lessons

In the north woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there is a cross-country ski trail that our boys dubbed Gut-Wrenching, as in “Let’s go on Gut Wrenching!”

The trail started tame enough and then had a steep downhill with a turn at the base of the hill marked helpfully by a tree with a thick, scarred trunk. No room for error. The only time I went on it I carried my skis down the hill. But then I was fearful. They weren’t. They were reckless. I admired that about them, their recklessness, until it developed different forms and sometimes broke my heart.

But one of age’s peculiar benefits is a markedly reduced fear of trees in one’s path even while one is careening down a hill. It isn’t recklessness as much as it is deservedness. Only some of you will know what I mean here but that is fine. Not everyone needs to share our secrets.

Lost in the Winner’s Circle

Parts of it were funny. And other parts were humiliating.

And even though I’ve told the story before, it deserves another telling, if only to show that maybe humiliation can diminish over time while the humor of a thing can grow.

I went to New York in July of 2015 to get a BlogHer Voice of the Year award for an essay I wrote about hearing loss called Blindsided. The person who told me I’d won, Rochelle Dukes Fritsch, a good friend also from Milwaukee, won for her remarkable essay What’s Behind My Tears for Ferguson which I wish I could link for you but can’t. We were flabbergasted, astonished, but both of us knew we’d written really good essays, pieces with meaning and importance. The awards were well-deserved and we glowed about being recognized in this important way for weeks before the big conference in New York. Still, I dreaded the trip for all the reasons I’d written about in my essay. Hearing loss had weakened me, taken the wind out of my sails. I was worried about navigating it all. But I went anyway.

On the night of the award presentation, we were summoned, along with a couple dozen other award winners, to a champagne reception on an elegant balcony overlooking a vast room where the names of the winners scrolled on a giant screen. Later, we would go down the stairs from the balcony to the big stage in front of a sea of people and have our picture taken. In the back of the balcony, past the champagne servers and the little bunches of people taking selfies and congratulating each other was a table with the BlogHer VOTY awards arranged in alphabetical order.

My name wasn’t there.

Rochelle’s name was there. She picked up the fancy box with her award and held it to her chest. Then she joined in the search for mine. We went through the rows of awards a dozen times. No Jan Wilberg. I checked the emails on my phone to confirm that I’d actually won. I did this while wearing a name tag identifying me as a BlogHer VOTY. Maybe I was some kind of auxiliary VOTY, I thought. A runner-up. Maybe I was supposed to be at the root beer reception. I checked the BlogHer website. Maybe they’d reconsidered. and I hadn’t been paying attention. No, my name was on the list of winners, plain as day. Jan Wilberg for Blindsided.

“Here. I think they just got your last name wrong.” She handed me a box with the name Janice Winkler. “That stuff happens all the time. This has to be you. Here.” And so I took the box and decided it must be mine but wondered hard how Jan Wilberg had become Janice Winkler.

We joked about it. I untied the ribbon, opened the box and showed the lovely glass award to people I knew only because of their blogs. We had instantly become birds of a feather and I wanted comfort and support from my new flock. “Look! They got my name wrong.” Oh, they’ll fix it, they all said. So funny. To come all this way and have your name wrong but so what, that’s life. It’ll make a great blog post. Ha, ha, ha.

Then, Rochelle nudged me hard and gestured over her shoulder. Behind us, Janice Winkler’s name was scrolling on the giant screen. She had won an award for Photography. For a photo of two people skydiving. Which is what I felt like I was doing at that very moment. I crammed her award back in its box and tried to retie the ribbon. It looked awful, like a present a kid had swiped from under the Christmas tree and then put back hoping not to be discovered. I was terrified someone would see me fumbling with Janice Winkler’s award. That I was wearing a hideous striped red and black shirt didn’t help. The thief wore neon.

My goal then was to melt into the crowd, pretend I’d put my award somewhere so I could handle the champagne with both hands. I felt naked though like I’d lost my pass to the Jamboree. So when I spied the leader of BlogHer coming down the stairs, I went up to her and told her that somehow my award hadn’t been on the table.

“Are you sure you’re a winner?”

Here’s where the humiliation part of the story picks up. She waved me away like I’d somehow wandered into the wrong room on my search for the Needlepoint Convention. This old broad with her two hearing aids and her hideous shirt must be lost because she couldn’t be one of us, nope. I was incredulous. Me, an award winner, albeit without the physical evidence, being waved off like a champagne server with an empty tray. It was a scorching, eye-blinking, I wanna call my mom to pick me up from school moment which I will probably never forget. There was more to it, you know there would have to be, more back and forth, more questions and answers. But what I remember most clearly were the accordion folds of my age, my disability, the disregard, the embarrassment, and my horrible shirt, a squeezebox of humiliation.

But I overcame. There was no choice. And there was Rochelle, my kind, funny, compatriot friend. I decided to act like I belonged there, like I was a winner, isn’t that what they say to do? So that’s what I did. I drank champagne and later I stood on the stage with all the other winners, next to Rochelle, and had my picture taken. A few months later, my award came in the mail. No ribbon, but with the right name. It’s right here sitting on my bookshelf, looking like it belongs there.