The Nature of Time

vintage clock

When he flew home from Vietnam, my first husband, Bill, brought with him a carved wooden hand with two fingers extended in the peace sign, photographs and memories of men in his platoon, and his short-timer calendar.

Most soldiers with fewer than three months left in Viet Nam kept such calendars. They were painted on helmets, sketched in notebooks, drawn on paper. All were illustrated; some were funny; many were salacious, a few were works of art. Every calendar had numbered spaces counting down to wake-up on the soldier’s last day in country.

As the final months crawled by, short-timers colored or marked off a space a day.

A fellow soldier drew Bill’s calendar: a psychedelic design decorated with joints, peace symbols and jungle trails. My husband had colored in every space. Here and there around the edges, he also scribbled addresses, phone numbers, and reminders. A random note caught and held my attention: “Time stands still. I’ll never make it home.”

When asked, he said: “Time moved like mud those last few weeks,” and nothing more.

Now I’m embarked on my final season, I think about his calendar, his comment, and the nature of time.

I wonder if time fears its own passing; if it drags its feet in an attempt to slow itself down. I wonder if it ages, develops wrinkles and aches, rues the fast pace of the passing years. Does time lose track of itself when lost in memories as I do? Does it remember the freedom it enjoyed as a child, the possibilities it sensed as a youth, and the rewards of being needed and useful as an adult?

Calendar

I tell myself if time wanted to postpone the inevitable result of its relentless passing, it wouldn’t spin out of control, crazed with speed, as it has since I turned sixty-five. It wouldn’t fold in on itself, causing months to fly by as quickly as days once did, and days to flash by in minutes.

I know that time doesn’t age as we do; but it does seem to possess a contrary personality that compels it to act in opposition to our lives.

To children, the weeks before Christmas crawl more slowly than a slug; teenagers, yearning for the endless years to pass, think they will never be old enough to drive. Meanwhile, adults are amazed that their offspring are in high school already; and grandparents look into the face of old age, incredulous that it arrived so quickly. At the same time, a soldier colors in a calendar and despairs.

Time passes for all of us, seeming to adjust its pace for each of us; and I find myself at the center of a whirlwind.

Pursuing Beauty

“Joel,” I caution, “your meeting starts in twenty minutes.”

“Yup,” he replies, concentrating on his computer, “No problem.” He then goes from shaving and showering to out-the-door in less than fifteen minutes. Amazing. I can spend that much time deciding which shoes to wear.

In December, I attended a dinner-dance fundraiser where people showed up in their best bib and tucker. I’m certain the ladies in attendance spent a considerable amount of time getting ready for the festive event, while the men did so during an ESPN commercial break.

My nails and hair both require an inordinate amount of time and seek revenge when I rush the process.home manicure

My self manicures often go awry. After completing the warm-up activities — cleaning, filing, controlling my cuticles — I rummage through my collection of nail polishes: a multitude of small bottles holding minuscule amounts of questionable colors grown sluggish with age. I choose Very Berry and give the lid a mighty wrench; it’s impossible — like trying to twist a flagpole out of cement.

When hot water, rapping on the counter, and gripping the lid with a nutcracker fail, I enlist Joel. He twists the cap free while reading the newspaper, a casual act that makes me want to scream.

Next, I apply the polish — too quickly, too liberally. My dad once noticed a pedicure I’d given myself and said, “Looks like you dipped your toes in a bucket of red paint and called ‘er good.”

I invariably do damage before the polish dries: I reach for a pen and gouge a trench across three nails; I go to bed thinking the polish is dry and wake up with implanted sheet marks; I pull on winter gloves too soon and attend a party with fibers waving from my fingertips. I then glide through the festivities with my fingers curled into my palms — making it difficult to get a grip on the appetizers. I also smile brightly, hoping the chaos of my nails will go unnoticed because of the distraction provided by my hair.Bad hair day

After I outgrew an uncombed ponytail, I tried to make my hair as straight as Mia Farrow’s in Peyton Place. In the 80’s, I turned to time-consuming perms, wanting the big hair of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. When I finally allowed my hair to do its wavy thing, it was time to start coloring it — another drawn-out disaster.

Years ago, I heard a fashion expert explain successful accessorizing to a female audience. He said women should put on the jewelry, scarves, belts, and hair adornments they intend to wear, then examine themselves in a mirror and remove one item before leaving the house.

Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I remember his advice — and wish I could remove my scalp.

Lessons from Life

UnknownWhat have you learned from living? …and how would your learnings compare to those of the late Maya Angelou: memoirist, poet, national treasure. I hope you enjoy her reflections on life. She captures in a few eloquent words what Aunt Beulah tries to say with so many. 

“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life. I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as making a life. I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.

I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.

I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.

I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou
in an interview with Oprah Winfrey

 

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Hide It Under a Bushel, No! continued

Faithful readers will remember that last week we left a young but determined Janet searching for talent and thinking she might find it at the piano.

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PART II

Mom agreed I could take piano lessons. She enrolled me with Mrs. Rowe, a patient lady with an imposing bosom, who shed talcum powder as she sat beside me on the piano bench and did her best.

I pounded away at the keyboard for a couple of years, earning saliva-smudged, gold stars when I mastered a piece, and then decided I should debut. I began to badger my mother about playing in church. With what I considered unseemly reluctance, she secured an invitation for me to perform during evening services.

Mrs. Rowe recommended I play March of the Wooden Soldiers because I thumped it out quite nicely. I tortured my family for two weeks with its four-page arrangement, practicing it over and over, demanding a critique after each repetition.

Finally, I had it — except for the last five measures, which contained a scale quickly rippling down three octaves, followed by a series of resounding chords. I usually bumbled the opening notes of the scale and had to start over.

I ran out of practice time before I could correct this unfortunate glitch.

On Sunday evening, I donned a pink, dotted-Swiss dress Mom made for my performance and wriggled nervously in a pew until my solo was announced. Face fiery red, I walked forever through somber silence to the piano sitting near the podium.

I plopped down, peered at unrecognizable notes, and sounded the opening chords, my heart leaping so high it clogged my sinuses.

As I played, my situation worsened. The strange surroundings closed in, narrowing my vision, causing me to pant with claustrophobia and drip with sweat. But I didn’t falter. The wooden soldiers and I marched on and on and on and on toward the final measures.

At last, I began the scale. Five notes later, my little finger failed to bridge over my thumb. Silence reigned. I started over. Again, I tripped on my thumb. Sinking so low my chin rested on middle C, I tried once more. And finished.

Mom assured me no one would hold that minor mistake against me. My younger sister said she thought the music was supposed to stumble around at the end, like maybe one soldier was drunk. I said nothing, just crawled back under my bushel.

A few years later, a fire, which burned our home and possessions, consumed my talent as well: no piano, no lessons. I don’t remember minding.

Still, on occasion, I sit at our piano and hammer out basic tunes to the accompaniment of a CD that came with a recent purchase, “Piano for Dummies.” These efforts build neither talent nor skill, but a quiet sense of enjoyment.

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He Was Joyous

Ernie on the riverWhenever Ernie laughed, he did so with his entire body, a knee-slapping, unrestrained, booming cackle that invited others to join the every-minute-of-every-day party he hosted for anybody who wandered by.

But eating corn on the cob made Ernie more philosophical: the more gnawed cobs, the more profound his utterances. During a six-cob session, he said the best thing about being old was no longer worrying about the expectations of others, but doing what he wanted. Furthermore, when he did so, people usually expressed amazement and appreciation.

Since his favorite activities were drinking beer and singing scandalous songs he learned in the Navy, I could believe people expressed amazement.

“I’m easier on myself now I’m old and retired,” he continued “I’m finally free to do things because I want to, not because I’m proving something to myself or others. At 68, I’m 200 pounds of blue-toned steel, and I can pee into the wind if I want.”

At the time, caught up in a whirlwind of goal achievement, I chuckled, but missed both Ernie’s point and the model he provided. He wasn’t offering toileting advice. Instead, his words and actions were saying that as you grow older and retire, you can laugh, create fun, and be kind to yourself. You can relax into the rhythm of the life you now have with no need to maintain your past self; and, if you take the time to look for delight and humor when young, they’ll be easier to find when you’re old.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I had only a few years left to benefit from Ernie’s fun and wisdom. Too soon, I sat in a drab hospital room as he drifted in and out of sleep, watching his gnarled hands crawl the bed covers and listening to the shudders of his breath. I knew the day was fast approaching when I would join his family to drop flowers into his beloved Yuba River, which flowed through the Sierra Nevada Mountains as deeply and surely as his friendship and happy spirit flowed through our lives.

In memory of Ernie and to remind myself how to live well in retirement, each year I choose a summer day to eat corn on the cob and sing his favorite navy song—the one about Columbus and the cabin boy.

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Battling the Holiday Bulge

Sun gazing Photos

Sun gazing Photos

It’s my sister’s fault that I overeat from October to January. Many years ago, sitting on the front steps of our porch, slurping root beer floats, Barbara and I decided Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and our birthdays were free-eating days; we could eat anything we wanted, all day, with no guilt.

We didn’t inform Mom.

A day of guilt-free excess seemed too brilliant an idea to discontinue, and I’ve remained true to holiday gluttony—though I now pursue it with less vigor than when young.

My birthday is in November; so beginning with Halloween, I party: popcorn balls, and bite-sized candy bars followed by birthday cake with caramel frosting; then on to pumpkin pie, and more pumpkin pie followed by fudge, frosted sugar cookies, and eggnog.

Too often, on January 2nd I plummet from a sugar high and realize my clothes don’t fit—the end result of my feeding frenzy, literally. From  experience, I know how to recover. First, I don’t diet. To ask me to give up the food I love with no reprieve in sight is inhumane. You might as well tell me to tape my mouth closed; I’m as likely to do it.

I’ve read I should practice “Hara Hachi Bu,” a Japanese saying that means stop eating when 80% full. Evidently it takes 20 minutes for our brains to recognize a satisfied stomach, so we should wait that long before reaching for seconds.

In my experience, if I stop eating for twenty minutes, others eat the food or refrigerate it. And how do I know when I’m 80% full? What physical symptom communicates, “Hey, old girl, the needle’s at 80; better nap for 20 minutes.”

I can’t take such extreme measures; here’s what I do instead.

I return to healthy foods with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in recommended portions. Experts say an entrée should be approximately the size of one’s palm. Praises be, I inherited my father’s hands.

I eat only at mealtime, no snacking allowed. Because I can’t snack, I’m driven to eat three meals a day whether hungry or not. On occasion, when immersed in a project, I glance at the clock and realize I must eat lunch, because in an hour, it will be time for dinner. I seem to think that skipping even one meal will plunge me back into incessant snacking.

I ban desert. Except on weekends. My willpower self-destructs after five days. If I deny myself longer, eventually I throw aside restraint, eat everything sweet in the house, and then scrabble through cupboards looking for stray chocolate chips.

If I follow my plan, forgiving myself for wallowing to the dark side on Valentine’s Day, after several weeks of such restraint, I realize my clothes are less snug—just in time for marshmallow bunnies, chocolate crème eggs, and jellybeans

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Together, we’ll solve this problem.

Summary of comments on “Worthwhile Resolutions”
What a treasure trove of ideas followed this column. Dawna adapted the appreciations idea: she plans to write one a night and put it in a jar so she can reread them at year’s end. Katie suggested creating a yearlong theme to guide your actions, rather than a single resolution. She chose Renewal as her theme. Mercy adopted the ideas of both Dawna and Katie and decided her theme will be Authenticity. I chose Convictions for myself, as in act on your convictions. Finally, Tuba North recommended listening to good music to lighten your mood and included a piece too lovely to describe. You might want to visit the comments from last weeks’ blog and listen to it. I think you’ll like it.