Where Is Winter?

Where is winter? Yes, I know, it’s another 24 days until astronomical winter. The solstice will duly arrive on December 21st, at 11:28 am EST. But meteorological winter should have made an appearance by now.

I remember Novembers with both mountain snowfall and frozen Piedmont ponds. Instead, it’s 65 degrees outside. Spring-blooming ornamentals, like my neighbor’s azaleas, are in full flower. What passes for my lawn sports new violets and buttercups. The cannas outside my front door don’t have the first hint of frostbite.

At least the maple trees have finally assumed their seasonal responsibility for providing autumnal color. They set scarlet, orange and gold leaves adrift on today’s all-too-warm breezes. But none of the oaks, be they red, white, willow or burr, are contributing to the fall color spectrum. They still appear fully foliaged, and are only hinting at the russets, browns and bronzes their leaves are destined to become.

This endless warmth and green and sunlight has to stop. I need winter. I need to light the first fire on the first frigid night, and lose my thoughts in the dance of the flames. I need to rest my eyes on tones of brown and gray, need to see the still hidden bones of the trees silhouetted against a steel-gray sky. I need to hear the cold silence of a dark morning as stars still sparkle overhead. I need to feel the fierce bite of the north wind wresting the warmth from my face as I pad down the driveway, wrapped in fleece.

It’s been a hard year. Too many hours spent in emergency departments and hospital rooms. Too few hours spent with my dear friend before she was gone. Too much fear. Too much dread. Too many goodbyes.

I need winter. I long for dormancy, for the deep winter sleep of trees. I need to be winter-chilled like a tulip, left undisturbed, underground, to gather life and the promise of growth from the dark earth. I need the coming months of palest winter light and cold, need frost to cover me like a blanket, need darkness to be a bed in which I may rest.

I need winter. Where IS it?


Empty Walls

That the new year, and the resulting rush for new beginnings in the form of diets, exercise regimes, and other resolutions begins on January 1st is an accident of the calendar. Anyone who has lived through 12 years of elementary and secondary education in this country, plus any additional college or graduate school education, knows that the new year and it’s assorted new beginnings actually starts with the new school year.

Our school system jumps the Labor Day gun and starts today, in the still oppressively humid heat of August. Yellow busses were already clogging the morning streets with their trial runs. Today, busses are joined by cars of parents who drive their children, and of teenagers who drive themselves to school. My ten minute summer drive to work has morphed into a full 30 minutes behind the wheel. I get to listen to 20 more minutes of our classical music radio station, but lose 20 minutes of morning harp practice.

I am readying for my own new beginnings.  I will be retiring in 6 weeks. But before there can be new beginnings, there must be endings.  So today I started to clear off my cubicle walls and bulletin board. I’ve needed some tangible, exterior evidence of my upcoming changes and new beginnings to come. My soon-to-be blank walls and bulletin board will be a moment-by-moment reminder that this cubicle is no longer home, and that this place is no longer where I belong.

 I can best describe my work cubicle as a three-dimensional collage that I step into every morning. African violets are blooming under the always-on fluorescent lights. Rocks and crystals brought to me from friends’ trips across the world are strewn on my file cabinet. A collection of stuffed polar bear toys given to me by coworkers sit on a shelf above my computer monitor. Framed photos of past and present dogs and cats cover a corner of my desk. And every vertical surface is papered with thirty years of assorted cartoons, quotes, pictures of polar bears, poems, photographs of my favorite places, Dilbert and Non Sequitur cartoons, and the best of what gets passed around on the internet. All of these scraps of paper have helped me laugh, stay sane, and remember what is important, throughout a career that was too often deadly serious, surreal, and in these last months, inane.

I’m taping all these relics of my working life into their very own journal. In my new life, whatever it may be, I don’t think I’ll need to see them every day. Nor do I have a place to put them.  But neither am I ready to toss my paper companions into the recycling bin. These little scraps of paper have traveled with me from office to office and job to job for far too long to abandon them now. They are tattered and worn, with frayed edges, yellowed tape and multiple push-pin holes documenting their many moves. All still hold memories, and some bit of wisdom that helped me survive and thrive through all my years of working in public mental health programs.

These are my three favorite wall quotes that I’ve taped into the new journal. From Idi Amin, the former military dictator and President of Uganda:    “Sometimes people mistake the way I talk for what I am thinking.”

From the actor Peter Ustinov:  “I regard myself as an optimist. An optimist is a person who knows how sad a place the world can be. The pessimist is one who is forever finding out.”

And finally, one last bit of wisdom, the paper yellowed and frayed from its many moves, from the journal Zero to Three:

“What has become critical to me occurs in the moment of interaction. It is more important to entertain the questions, “Were you kind, compassionate, and honest in that moment of interaction? Are you respected for being a decent human being, one-on-one?” These are fundamental to the relationships we have with one another. . .”

None of this wisdom was to be found in any of the management or organizational development fads I survived. Over the course of my career I’ve been stalked by One-Minute Managers, sat through endless Quality Circles, had my Total Quality assessed, and my work improved by Process Improvement Teams. I’ve searched for Who Moved My Cheese, caught fish toys from the Pike’s Place Fish Market, worked with no direction on Self-Directed Work teams, and been Managed for Results. No one, from any of these methods of organization development, could manage to simply say what these three pieces of paper have reminded me for the last thirty years:  Say what you mean and mean what you say. Stay hopeful despite all the sadness in the world. At the end of the day, look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Was I a decent human being today?”

I wish I could draw some unique and witty conclusion from these reflections, wish that I could sum up what my work means to me now, as I prepare to leave it.  Instead, my brain feels about as blank as the walls I am emptying. And I wonder, after I walk out of these doors for the last time, how will I be remembered? Did I say what was in my heart? Did I do what I said I would do? Did I help someone find hope in the midst of darkness?  Will I be remembered as a kind, compassionate, honest, and decent human being? Will the lives I’ve touched be better off for my having touched them?

Music doesn’t care how old you are, and other birthday reflections

My birthday was a couple of weeks ago.  I am now 58 years old. I find this quite amazing, being a child of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the home fallout shelter craze, and weekly “duck-and-cover” drills in the hallway of my elementary school. I live in a perpetual state of surprise that any of us are still alive on this planet.

I am also confused about what demographic I now belong to. I can’t consider 58 to be middle-aged. There’s not too many 116 year-olds wandering around my part of the world. So I guess that I am a young “old-person”.  Not that it really matters. Music doesn’t care how old you are. Neither do dogs, or gardens. And now that I’ve met and know so many incredible, wonderful women in this new club that I find myself a member of, “old” looks to be a pretty interesting place.  There’s way more fun to be had than I ever considered from the vantage point of a “young” person. The territory may be a bit more hazardous than I’m used to, or perhaps it’s just hazardous in a different way.

Fifty-eight is one of those awkward middle decade birthdays. No big sense of accomplishment comes with it. It’s nothing like turning 50. On my 50th birthday, I felt a sense, however delusional, that I had arrived at some milestone of age and wisdom that would make subsequent years seem quite tranquil in comparison to the preceding 50. HAH! Was I ever wrong! For one thing, at 50 I’d not started the harp – that would be another two years away – and all the changes the harp would create were not yet imagined. But even without harp stuff, the last eight years have repeatedly demonstrated that while yes, the tidal floods that overwash my life are somewhat less intense, and I swim much better now, the moon still exerts her same pull on the water, which rises and falls with the same pre-50 regularity.

And from these repeated swims (or near drownings, depending on the changing perspective that time and distance allow) the last eight years have taught me truths that I could not have considered or believed at 50. Here is what I know today: Don’t wait for joy. Say “yes” to as much as I can, unless I know in my heart and in my bones to say “no”. Don’t hold back speaking my truth. Ask for what I want and what I need, and then go out there, or go inside myself, and find it. Be as kind as I possibly can, as much of the time as I can. Tell people that I love them. Tell people that I appreciate them making my life richer and fuller. Go after adventures – and everything is one. Kiss all the dogs I meet. Being scared won’t kill me, but being afraid to live will. Cry whenever my heart is touched (like I could stop it?) and be grateful that my heart is tender enough and open enough to be touched. Whoever or whatever God is, she/he/it wants us to notice and appreciate and love and be grateful and give thanks for and enjoy all this, her/his/its creations. There are people to enjoy and laugh with and connect to everywhere in this world. A cup of tea in a village pub on a rainy Irish afternoon cures loneliness. Something of people I’ve loved survives their bodily death, at least for a while. Dreams do come true, given a clear vision and doing the footwork. You can start over and do something totally new and different as many times as you want. There’s no rulebook, but kindness and gratitude can guide me through anything. I can always change my mind. If I am joyful, I am listening to my heart. Lots of perseverance and consistent work combined with little natural ability gets one a lot farther along than does little perseverance and work combined with little natural ability. Showing up is the right first step for most things. I don’t have to know where I’m going – I just have to pay attention to the scenery and enjoy the ride. Both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are beautiful. Losing my dog breaks my heart, and inviting a new dog into my life fills my heart up again. I’m not too old to fall in love. Farmers and musicians are some of the best people I know. It’s non-negotiable in this lifetime – I have to write, whether or not anybody ever reads anything. Music is what I’m supposed to be doing. Gabriel’s Oboe is good medicine for grief and a broken heart. Everything is a miracle and a wonder. I rarely know what I’m capable of, so don’t assume that I can’t and don’t count out any possibility. Say yes, say yes, say yes.